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Archive for May, 2011

Posted by Just Foreign Policy on May 23rd, 2011

From our partners at Just Foreign Policy

The final list of amendments that will be introduced for the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act is not yet finalized or complete, so we will be updating this blog as more information comes out of Congress. We encourage you to make your call as soon as possible, but if you plan to call later in the day, please check back here before doing so.

May 23, 6PM EDT

Call Script

1. Call your Representative at 1-888-231-9276
2. When you reach your Representative’s office, ask to speak to the staff person who handles foreign policy, or ask for the foreign policy staff person by name, if you know it. If this person is not available, leave your message with the person who answered the phone.
3. Tell them: “I urge you to support the McGovern-Jones and Lee amendments to end the war in Afghanistan, the Conyers amendment to stop military escalation in Libya, and the Amash-Lee amendment to strip the authorization for permanent war from the defense bill.”

List of Amendments

And here is more information on the amendments we expect to be introduced:

1. McGovern-Jones and Lee amendments to end the war in Afghanistan (Amdt #30)

read more

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Posted by The Agonist on May 21st, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Peshawar | May 21

AFP – At least 15 people were killed in an oil tanker blaze after a bomb exploded on the Afghanistan-bound NATO vehicle near a Pakistani border town on Saturday, officials said.

The victims had gathered to collect oil leaking from the tanker near Landi Kotal town in the northwestern tribal region of Khyber, local administration official Shafeerullah Wazir said.

“The oil tanker caught fire after a blast caused by a small bomb before dawn,” he said. “Villagers from nearby houses rushed and started collecting oil coming out of the destroyed tanker after the fire had been extinguished,” he said.

“Suddenly the fire erupted again and at least 15 people including five young boys who had been collecting oil in their buckets were burnt to death,” he said.

Earlier, 11 other NATO supply vehicles, “most of them oil tankers” were destroyed in nearby Torkham town, another administration official, Iqbal Khattak, said.

“The vehicles caught fire after a blast in one of the tankers around midnight last night,” he said, adding that the blast was apparently caused by a remote-controlled device planted under one of the vehicles.

“There were no casualties,” Khattak told AFP.

Wazir confirmed the overnight attack, saying that a total of 12 NATO vehicles had been destroyed in the two incidents.

No group has claimed responsibility but the Taliban have claimed such attacks in the past.

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Posted by Peace Action West on May 20th, 2011

From our partners at Peace Action West

Will the July withdrawal from Afghanistan be a real step toward ending the war, or a photo op? If the Pentagon has its way, we won’t be leaving Afghanistan any time soon. They’re trying to fudge things by offering up just 5-10,000 troops for the July withdrawal, many of them support staff and maintenance personnel.

The Pentagon is playing games, and we need Congress to push back, hard. That’s why we need your help to cut through the politics and make this war personal.

We need YOUR words, YOUR personal messages about why you want to end the war. We’ll tie your message to a toy soldier and send it to Congress in a virtual march that will make the opposition to war impossible to ignore. Click here to send your soldier to Congress.

Our organizers have been hitting the streets gathering moving and heartbreaking stories from around the country about the war. Imagine receiving hundreds of toy soldiers with messages like the ones we’ve already gathered:

“I’d like to see my brother come home safe.”

“My parents came to this country fleeing bloody war. I want my America to live up to its promises and ideals.”

“My daughter needs her father much more than the world needs another dead soldier.”

“I have a ten-year-old daughter whose future is being held hostage by the moral and material costs of this war.”

Add your voice to their call. Click here to tell Congress why you want to bring the troops home, and we’ll attach your message to a soldier and send it to Washington, DC.

Members of Congress know this war is unpopular. Now we need to show them that we’re not going to sit idly by and let them continue it. Send your soldier to Congress today.

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Posted by The Agonist on May 19th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Ray Rivera & Sangar Rahimi | Kabul | May 19

NYT – Insurgents ambushed an Afghan construction crew working on a road project in southeastern Afghanistan early Thursday morning, leaving at least 35 dead security guards, laborers and engineers scattered along the mountainous terrain.

Security guards tried to fight off the attackers in a gunfight that lasted two hours in a remote part of Paktia Province, local officials said. Of the 80 workers and guards at the construction camp, only 8 are known to have escaped unharmed. An additional 20 were wounded and 17 were still missing, they said.

The attack began about 2 a.m., less than 50 miles east of the provincial capital, Gardez, in an area strongly under the sway of the Haqqani Network, a brutal offshoot of the Taliban.

The group, based across the border in Pakistan’s tribal areas, has been responsible for attacks throughout eastern Afghanistan. In an e-mail to reporters, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack without directly implicating the Haqqani group.

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Posted by alexthurston on May 19th, 2011

style=”font-size: x-large;”>Bored to Death in Afghanistan (and Washington)
Mating Déjà Vu with a Mobius Strip in the Graveyard of Empire
By Tom Engelhardt

One day in October 2001, a pilot for Northwest Airlines refused to let Arshad Chowdhury, a 25-year-old American Muslim (“with a dark complexion”) who had once worked as an investment banker in the World Trade Center, board his plane at San Francisco National Airport.  According to Northwest’s gate agents, Chowdhury writes in the Washington Post, “he thought my name sounded suspicious” even though “airport security and the FBI verified that I posed no threat.”  He sued.

Now, skip nearly a decade.  It’s May 6, 2011, and two New York-based African-American imams, a father and son, attempting to take an American Airlines flight from New York to Charlotte to attend a conference on “prejudice against Muslims,” were prevented from flying.  The same thing happened to two imams in Memphis “dressed in traditional long shirts and [with] beard,” heading for the same conference, when a pilot for Atlantic Southeast refused to fly with them aboard, even though they had been screened three times.

So how is the war in Afghanistan going almost 10 years later?  Or do you think that’s a non sequitur?

I don’t, and let me suggest two reasons why: first, boredom; second, the missing learning curve.

At home and abroad, whether judging by airline pilots or Washington’s war policy, Americans seem remarkably incapable of doing anything other than repeating the same self-defeating acts, as if they had never happened before.  Hence Afghanistan.  Almost 10 years after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and proclaimed victory, like imam-paralyzed airline pilots, we find ourselves in a state that might otherwise be achieved only if you mated déjà vu with a Mobius strip.

If you aren’t already bored to death, you should be.  Because, believe me, you’ve read it all before.  Take the last month of news from America’s second Afghan War.  If nobody told you otherwise, you could easily believe that almost every breaking Afghan story in the last four weeks came from some previous year of the war.

Headlines from the Dustbin of History (Afghan Department)

Let me explain with seven headlines ripped from the news, all of which sit atop Afghan War articles that couldn’t be newer — or older.  Each represents news of our moment that was also news in previous moments; each should leave Americans wondering about Washington’s learning curve.

* “Pentagon reports ‘tangible progress’ in Afghanistan”: Here, the headline tells you everything you need to know.  Things are going remarkably swimmingly, according to a recent congressionally mandated Pentagon report (which cost a mere $344,259 to produce).  How many times in recent years has the military claimed “progress” in Afghanistan, with the usual carefully placed reservations about the fragility or reversibility of the situation?  (Oh, and how many times have U.S. intelligence reports been far gloomier on the same subject?)

* “Afghan violence rises amid troop surge — Pentagon”: The information that led to this headline came, curiously enough, from that very same upbeat Pentagon report.  As the Reuters piece to which this headline was attached put it: “A surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan has dealt a blow to the Taliban insurgency, but total violence has risen since last fall and is likely to keep climbing, the Pentagon said on Friday in a new assessment of the war as it approaches its 10-year mark.”  This spring, insurgent attacks have reportedly been up about 80% compared to the previous year, which might be more startling if the rise-in-violence piece weren’t a longtime staple of Afghan War reportage.

Are you bored to death yet?  No, then I’ll keep going.

* “Audit: Afghans don’t know how many police on rolls“:  The news embedded in this headline is that a recent audit by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan has found that some of the $10 billion a year being poured into training, building up, and supplying Afghanistan’s security forces is undoubtedly missing-in-action.  The IG reports that “the country’s police rolls and payrolls cannot be verified because of poor record keeping,” which means that the numbers “for all practical purposes become somewhat fictitious.”  Put another way, the U.S. and its coalition partners are undoubtedly paying “ghost” policemen.

This story could be paired with a recent Reuters piece, “Pentagon’s rosy report of Afghanistan war raises questions,” which points out that, despite the billions of dollars and years of time invested in mentoring Afghanistan’s security forces, “there are currently no Afghan National Police units that are able to operate independently.”  In addition, even that recent “rosy” Pentagon report indicates that so many Afghan soldiers are deserting — six out of every 10 new recruits — as to imperil the goal of creating a massive army capable of taking over security duties in the next several years.  It has also been difficult to find enough trainers for the program, and given all of the above, experts suspect that the country will not have an effective army in place by 2014.

But here’s the thing: such reports about the massive training program for Afghan security forces, the inability of those forces to operate independently, the wholesale desertions continually suffered, and so on have appeared again and again and again over the last years.

* “With bin Laden dead, some escalate push for new Afghan strategy”: Here’s the only problem with that “new Afghan strategy” reportedly being debated in Washington — it’s not new.  It’s drearily old.  In fact, it’s simply a replay on the downhill slide of bitter policy arguments in the fall of 2009 involving Washington policymakers and the U.S. military.  That was a moment when the Obama administration had set about reassessing Afghan strategy and trying to choose between counterinsurgency (“the surge”) and what was then called “counterterrorism plus” (more drones and more trainers, but less combat troops).

Then the debate was narrow indeed — between more (an increase of 40,000 troops) and more (an increase of 20,000 troops).  There was never a real “less” option.  Today, with almost 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and despite reports of “war fatigue,” even among Congressional Republicans, as well as plummeting poll numbers among Americans generally, the new debate is similarly narrow, similarly focused, and deeply familiar, a kind of less-versus-less version of the more-versus-more duke-em-out of 2009.

Similar arguments, similar crew.  Then, Vice President Biden spearheaded the counterterrorism-plus option; today, it’s chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry, who quickly made the parameters of the “new” strategy debate clear: “I do not know of any serious policy person who believes that a unilateral precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would somehow serve our interests or anybody’s interests. I do not believe that is a viable option.”

As in the fall of 2009, agreement among “serious policy people” that there should be a continuing American “footprint” in Afghanistan is set in stone.  It seems the only question on the table is how small and how slow the drawdown should be, with the debaters already evidently settling into an agreed upon endgame of 20,000 to 30,000 American troops, special operations forces, and trainers post-2014. Despite the president’s promise of significant troop reductions this year, early hints about war commander General David Petraeus’s recommendations indicate that as few as 10,000 may be withdrawn, with no combat troops among them (though pressure to increase those numbers is rising).

Not out of your mind with boredom yet?  Then I’ll keep at it.

* “Accusations of Corruption Rampant in Afghanistan”: Here’s the thing: you don’t even need to know the details of the story that lies behind that NPR headline.  Yes, Vermont representative Peter Welsh has called on Congress to investigate Afghan corruption, given the billions the U.S. is squandering there; yes, the Afghan deputy attorney general admitted that he had arrest warrants for various high officials on corruption charges but feared trying to bring them in; yes, headlines like “Afghan war progress at risk from corruption, training lags” are commonplace these days, as are stories about “reconstruction” corruption, protection payoffs to unsavory local warlords or the Taliban, and staggering levels of corruption in and around the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  But here’s the thing: it’s been that way for years.  Corruption stories — and stories about fighting corruption or the need to force the government of Hamid Karzai to do the same — have been the essential bread and butter of Afghan war reporting for almost a decade.

* ”For Second Time in 3 Days, NATO Raid Kills Afghan Child”:  The New York Times piece under this headline reports on how “NATO” night raiders (usually U.S. special operations forces) killed a 15-year-old boy, the son of an Afghan National Army soldier, sleeping in his family fields with a shotgun beside him.  In the incident two days earlier the headline alludes to, another crew of night raiders killed a 12-year-old girl sleeping in her backyard, as well as her uncle, an Afghan police officer.  And who’s even mentioning the eight private security guards killed in an air strike as May began?

As it happens, however, from the moment that a B-52 and two B-1B bombers, using precision-guided weapons, destroyed a village wedding party in December 2001, killing 110 out of 112 revelers (only the first of numerous wedding parties to be blown away during these years), such civilian casualties have been the drumbeat behind the war.  The Afghan dead — slaughtered by Taliban suicide bombers and IEDs as well — have risen in a charnel heap high above those of September 11, 2001. 

Accompanying such stories over the years have been passages like this one from the Times piece: “When morning came, an angry crowd gathered in Narra, the boy’s village, and more than 200 people marched with his body to the district center. Some of the men were armed and confronted the police, shouting anti-American slogans and throwing rocks at police vehicles and the… government center, according to the district governor and the [local school] headmaster. ” 

This is the never-ending story of the war, the one whose only variations involve whether, faced with such deaths, U.S. military spokespeople will stonewall and deny, launch an “investigation” that goes nowhere, or offer a pro forma apology.  When it came to the death of that girl recently, an apology was indeed issued, but her father made the essential point: “They killed my 12-year-old daughter and my brother-in-law and then told me, ‘We are sorry.’  What does it mean?  What pain can be cured by this word ‘sorry’?”

Rogue War

When it comes to the Afghan War, there are other news stories of the present moment that were also the Afghan news of 2006, 2008, and 2010.  There’s even the newest hot set of rumors about U.S. attempts to open negotiations with the Taliban, whose last iteration ended when American officials discovered that the Taliban “senior commander” they had flown to Kabul was actually a clever impostor (who made off with a pile of money).  But let’s consider just one more story, the seventh headline of this moment, versions of which have headlined many other moments in these years, and ask whether there isn’t something — anything at all — new to be learned from it.

* “Afghan officer fires on NATO troops, kills 9”: This was breaking news when it happened.  On April 25th, a veteran Afghan air force pilot, armed with two weapons and in a specially guarded and secure area of Kabul airport, suddenly opened fire on a group of Americans evidently involved in a training program for Afghan pilots.  He gunned down eight U.S. Air Force personnel, including a lieutenant colonel, four majors, two captains, and a master sergeant, as well as a private contractor (himself a retired U.S. military officer) before being killed.  It was “the deadliest episode to date of an Afghan turning against his own coalition partners.”  But hardly the only one.  In a sense, this was no news at all.  It was already at least the fourth time in 2011 that someone dressed in an Afghan army or police uniform had turned a weapon on U.S. or NATO personnel.  Among such incidents was one just three weeks earlier in which a man wearing a border police uniform, reportedly “upset over the recent burning of the Quran at a Florida church,” killed two Americans, and another in February in which an Afghan soldier, reportedly “offended by his German partners,” killed three of them, wounding yet more. 

By military count, since March 2009, 17 such incidents have been reported.  Since the mass killing at Kabul airport, there has already been an 18th in which, according to sketchy reports, a man in an Afghan police uniform opened fire on two NATO personnel at a “luncheon” in Helmand Province in the country’s embattled south.  In such incidents, at least 34 Americans have died. (Not counted in this total, evidently, is an incident in January 2010 in which a Taliban double or triple agent blew himself up amid a group of CIA employees on a forward operating base in Eastern Afghanistan, killing seven of them, including the station chief.)

Such incidents pile up repetitively, without adding up to anything of significance here.  Yes, the literal math has been done and it should be striking, even shocking, to Americans, and yet these news stories seldom get much attention and have already fallen into a he said/he said pattern in which the only crucial question becomes: Was the killer a Taliban plant or a “rogue” member of the Afghan security forces?   As soon as such an attack occurs, the Taliban — which has made striking strides in entering the modern age of media spin — promptly takes credit for it, claiming that whoever blew away a coalition soldier was one of its own and the incident a carefully planned operation. 

It’s easy to understand why the Taliban would want to associate itself with such events.  Harder to grasp — though no reporter seems to give it a second thought — is the U.S./NATO response.  Their spokespeople regularly hustle out statements insisting that whoever attacked U.S. or coalition personnel was not connected to the Taliban, but simply having a truly bad day/life (experiencing, say, financial or psychological stress) and that, as a result, the incident was an “isolated” one, “not part of any organized pattern,” or as an American general summed it up to reporters, “rare.”  And yet the phenomenon turns out to be common enough that the military has a label for it: “green-on-blue” violence.

Consider this, though: Is the thought that the enemy is capable of repeatedly infiltrating American or NATO ranks really more devastating than the thought that, on a really bad day, “our” Afghans, the ones we are training or regularly working side-by-side with, have a deep-seated, repetitive urge to blow the foreigners away?  That seems to me the devastating message U.S. military officials are rushing to reinforce.

Can you, in fact, even come up with a comparable historical situation?  Admittedly, when weaponry is everywhere, war is the subject, and hair-trigger is the attitude, people can die in all sorts of ways, as “fragging” incidents in the U.S. military in the Vietnam era indicated.  (There was, in fact, one such incident at a military base in Kuwait as the invasion of Iraq began and, more recently of course, a disturbed Army psychiatrist, Major Nidal Hasan, went on a rampage, killing 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas.)

Still, where else is there such a record of police and military personnel blowing away their own trainers and ostensible allies so often?  Isn’t it possible that all those “rogues” are offering a collective message Americans simply don’t care to hear?

Despite the almost unbroken and certainly repetitive record of three decades of war and destruction, there are undoubtedly new stories to be found under the Afghan sun (as well as across the border in roiling Pakistan).  It’s just that you aren’t likely to find them in American war coverage, in part because you aren’t likely to find them in American strategic or tactical thinking. 

Perhaps the real question is this: What does it tell us when neither a new policy thought nor a new story can come out of a disastrous war almost 10 years old?

What does it mean when a great power proves incapable of learning anything from its own past actions?  What does it mean when you can’t think creatively or reimagine the world in a land that has so often been referred to as “the graveyard of empire”?  Is it really so hard to guess?

And by the way, is anybody bored to death yet?  Then, what if, for the sake of having one new story to write, we decided to come home?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

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Posted by Newshoggers.com on May 18th, 2011

From our partners at Newshoggers.com

By Robert Greenwald and Derrick Crowe

A quiet city in the north of Afghanistan ignited today after yet another NATO night raid reportedly tore another family apart. Thousands of people took to the streets, again chanting, “Death to America!” as they pelted Karzai’s billboards with mud and stones. They attacked police. They attacked the local NATO outpost. At least a dozen people were killed in the clash, which showed local rage directed at every level of the U.S.-led counterinsurgency strategy, from the local security forces, to our corrupt and feckless local “partners” in the Karzai government, to the U.S. itself.

Worse, this isn’t the only civilian killing by NATO forces even just this week. On May 16, Reuters reported:

“Foreign troops killed an Afghan child and wounded four others when responding to insurgent fire in volatile eastern Kunar province, the provincial Governor said on Monday, the third accidental killing of young civilians in less than a week.”

These deaths were senseless enough before Bin Laden was killed and al Qaeda driven from the country. Now, they’re downright obscene. With the last rational-sounding excuse for continuing the war, bringing Bin Laden to “justice,” gone, continuing this counterinsurgency campaign makes no sense, and it’s making Americans and Afghans less safe while wasting precious national resources. If you agree, please join Rethink Afghanistan in calling for an end to the war in the wake of Bin Laden’s death.

The uprising in Taloqan triggered by NATO’s killing of civilians is a microcosm of a larger dynamic playing out across the country. When one honestly looks at the data, the counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan has been, at best, a miserable failure in its stated goal of “protecting the population,” or worse, a key driver in an ever-increasing cycle of violence and instability that puts civilians at risk.

Rising Violence in the Shadow of Escalation

Despite an escalation launched under the pretext of “reversing Taliban momentum” and “protecting the population,” attacks launched by insurgents and civilian casualties continue to rise. U.S. military leaders expect those numbers to continue to worsen over this summer. This is a strategy, remember, that Admiral Mike Mullen said, “must — and will — improve security for the Afghan people and limit both future civilian and military casualties.”

Both civilian and military casualties have increased sharply following the escalation, by the way.

A new report published by the Minority Rights Group International shows the price paid by Afghans for the U.S. catastrophic pursuit of escalated military action as a solution to the Afghanistan crisis. MRG says that Afghanistan’s population has seen a bigger spike in risk for mass killings than any other country on the planet this year. The military-first strategy for resolving the Afghanistan conflict hasn’t made Afghans safer, at best. At worst, it raised the temperature of the conflict to a boil.

We sold the Afghans a bill of goods–that a huge influx of military forces was what was needed to protect them. As Rethink Afghanistan warned at the time, there was no way an escalation was ever going to mean more safety for people caught in the crossfire. Combine that false promise with the U.S.’s continued backing of deeply corrupt thugs in Kabul, and it’s easy to understand why the Afghans are angry. The longer this dynamic persists, the less safe Americans become.

Meanwhile, special forces night raids continue all over the country, generating rage, humiliation, and needless death, at the cost of more than $2 billion a week and senseless military and civilian casualties.

The uprising in Taloqan wasn’t the first, and unless the U.S. begins a serious drawdown of forces and ends these night raids, it won’t be the last.

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Posted by The Agonist on May 18th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

May 18

AFP – Thirteen people were killed and 20 others hurt Wednesday in a suicide car bombing against a police bus in eastern Afghanistan claimed by the Taliban, a provincial spokesman said.

“Unfortunately, 13 people have been killed and 20 others injured in a suicide attack that targeted a police minivan today,” said provincial spokesman Abdul Zia Ahmadzai.

The attack happened at around 4:45 pm (1215 GMT) in the eastern province of Nangarhar, just outside the city of Jalalabad and a few kilometres from Jalalabad airport. …

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Posted by The Agonist on May 17th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

Ben Farmer and James Kirkup | May 16

The TelegraphDavid Cameron’s push for an early British withdrawal from Afghanistan has caused alarm in the US, raising fears for the Special Relationship.

Senior American military figures have warned Britain that a hasty exit from Afghanistan could strain relations between the two countries.

The Daily Telegraph last week revealed that David Cameron has ordered British commanders to draw up plans to start pulling hundreds of British troops out of Afghanistan within weeks.

The Prime Minister is expected to discuss a co-ordinated Afghan withdrawal in London next week.

The prospect of an imminent British withdrawal is understood to have alarmed American generals, who are trying to resist political pressure for a major reduction in US troop numbers.

Well-placed sources said that US generals have delivered a blunt warning to their British counterparts about the impact of an early UK withdrawal.

One senior American general is said to have told British commanders that the US would not “bail out” British troops in Afghanistan if Mr Cameron reduces their numbers too quickly.

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Posted by The Agonist on May 16th, 2011

From our partners at The Agonist

One would think that if you killed three children in four days your COIN policy might not be so successful. Maybe we should fine tune our freedom bombs? Aren’t they smart enough to avoid children?

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Posted by alexthurston on May 16th, 2011

The War Lovers
Why It Feels So Good to Be Embedded with the U.S. Military

By Peter Van Buren

Objective reporting on the SEAL team that killed bin Laden was as easy to find as a Prius at a Michele Bachmann rally. The media simply couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t stop spooning out man-sized helpings of testosterone — the SEALs’ phallic weapons, their frat-house, haze-worthy training, their romance-novel bravado, their sweaty, heaving chests pressing against tight uniforms, muscles daring to break free…

You get the point. Towel off and read on.

What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.

I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I’m a diplomat, just back from 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.

In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.

One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was now back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”

Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media

Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.

I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.

The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.

Growing up professionally within the State Department, I had been raised to fear the media. “Don’t end up on the front page of the Washington Post,” was an often-repeated warning within the State Department, and many a boss now advises young Foreign Service Officers to “re-read that email again, imagining it on the Internet, and see if you still want to send it.” And that’s when we’re deciding what office supplies to recommend to the ambassador, not anything close to the life-and-death stuff a military embed might witness.

When I started my career, the boogieman was syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, then Washington Post columnist Al Kamen.  Now, it’s Jon Stewart and Wikileaks. A mention by name in any of those places is career suicide. Officially, State suggests we avoid “unscripted interactions” with the media. Indeed, in his book on Iraq and Afghan nation-building, Armed Humanitarians, Nathan Hodge brags about how he did get a few State Department people to talk to him anonymously in a 300-page book with first-person military quotes on nearly every page.

So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a “runaway general.”

We were, however, dead wrong.  As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who has since been redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?

I’m waiting.

I saw it myself in Iraq.  General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow.  I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.

Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert.  When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.

Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies like DADT.  (Do I have to freaking spell it out for you? Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.) The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me — like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.

Fear Not: The Force Is With You

But the military wasn’t worried.  Why?  Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.

You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.

Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)

You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.

Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.

The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them.

You arrived a stranger and a geek.  Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them.  Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.

One time I got so sick that I spent half a day inside a latrine stall. What got me out was some anonymous soldier tossing a packet of anti-diarrheal medicine in. He never said a word, just gave it to me and left. He’d likely do the same if called upon to protect me, help move my gear, or any of a thousand other small gestures.

So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.

And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military.  War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.

I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.

Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), will be published this September and can be preordered by clicking here. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses the farce of nation-building in Iraq, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

[Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the U.S. Government. The Department of State has not approved, endorsed, or authorized this post.]

Copyright 2011 Peter Van Buren

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