Category Archives: Iraq

Guess I’ll have to go see ‘American Sniper’

american_sniper_still

Has anyone seen “The Master,” one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films? I saw it last night on Netflix (still fighting a cold, I’ve been vegging out in front of the tube a lot in my off hours) and was impressed. Not that it seemed to have much meaning, but it was interesting and well done, and had a couple of roles in it that actors would understandably kill for. Anyway, I was curious as to whether any of y’all had any thoughts about it.

I got up this morning thinking about that, but now, I think I may have to make one of my rare trips to the actual cinema to check out the subject of this Tweet from this morning:

Yes, that’s the kind of post that makes you give a second glance to see whose feed this is, and then you say, “The Guardian, of course.”

This particular writer was bending over backward to defend Clint Eastwood, saying that however much “we diverge politically… he is not a black-and-white ideologue.”

No, the problem that the writer decries is that “much of the US right wing” has failed to appreciate that this is a “morally ambiguous, emotionally complex film,” and regard it “with the same unconsidered, rah-rah reverence that they would the national anthem or the flag itself.”

This is supported with examples from some extreme trolls who wish that critics of the film would eat s__t, be raped and die. The usual sick puppies who, I guess we are supposed to assume, represent “much of the US right wing.” Trolls. Really nasty ones.

And of course, you have to be a pretty sick puppy, or challenged in the reading-comprehension department, if you can read the movie’s subtitle — “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History” — and not pick up on the idea that there’s a pickup truckload of moral ambiguity churning about here.

I know y’all all think I’m an incorrigible warmonger and all, but I’m someone who does not blink at the dark thicket of morally impossible choices and ethical quicksand into which war leads us. And I’ve always marveled that anyone can live with himself after having killed as a sniper. Yeah, I know; a sniper can save a lot of his comrades’ lives and perform a useful function in a just cause. But a sniper isn’t running and firing at people firing at him, with his blood pounding in his ears and adrenaline drowning his senses. He calmly, analytically, scientifically, artistically, with great care, observes his magnified victim close-up through his scope for much, much longer than any other soldier ever has an enemy in his sights. And the target is unsuspecting. He has no idea that his death is coolly studying him for long minutes, and then choosing the instant to calmly blow his head apart.

A sniper can be a hero. Everyone he knows may praise him for his skill and devotion to duty. But how do you live with yourself after that?

I wonder at such things. So I wanted to see the movie anyway. But I wanted to see it twice as much after reading this actual review of it, also in The Guardian. This writer doesn’t bother making excuses for Mr. Eastwood, basically lumping him in with the rest of those thoughtless rah-rah American nutters. “American Sniper is so conditioned by its first-person shooter aesthetic that it never widens its focus or pans left or right… while the war on Iraq is a just, noble cause.”

Did you catch that? War on Iraq? This, apparently, is what passes as cool, analytical rhetoric in The Guardian, distinguishing right-thinking people from the “black-and-white ideologues,” all of whom, evidently, are neoconservatives.

Anyway, I was grabbed by this passage from the review:

In one early scene, Kyle’s father tells him that the world is divided into three types: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle sees himself as a sheepdog, a noble protector of the weak and the innocent, and it is clear that Eastwood does too. But is the world that simple? A different film (a better film) might have asked the wolves what they think, or at least wondered why the sheep behave as they do….

This grabbed me because that sheep/wolf/sheepdog model is central to Dave Grossman’s study of what he terms “killology,” a field of inquiry he has invented and generally has to himself. Lt. Col. Grossman is the author of that book I’m always going on about, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. It demonstrates, through statistical analyses of battles and other means, that through most of human history, most soldiers have not fired their weapons in combat, and most who did fired over their enemies’ heads, for the simple fact that however they may have been trained, the training failed to overcome their profound aversion to killing fellow human beings. (Actually, in the past generation, U.S. and other advanced armies have overcome that reluctance through conditioning, which has led to more PTSD, which is a reason why Grossman wrote the book.)

That vast majority that doesn’t want to kill, and which suffers tremendous psychological damage when forced to do so, makes up the “sheep” category — not meant as a pejorative, but simply denoting normal, peaceful men.

I’m sometimes unclear as to who, exactly, makes up the “sheepdog” category. Sometimes, Grossman indicates it’s anyone who willingly dons the uniform — of the cop, the soldier, the sailor — and defends his or her society. Other times, though, he seems to be referring to a much rarer breed — the 2 percent of combat soldiers (according to a study from World War II, when there was such a vast cross-section of the male population to study) who “if pushed or given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.”

The WWII study found these men to have a tendency to be “aggressive psychopaths.” But Grossman defends them from that damning term, explaining that they are just natural-born soldiers who “apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing and the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat.”

In that set of competing definitions, you’ve got enough ambiguity to employ an army of moral philosophers for a century.

Their the sort whose comrades might see as heroes, while those who have no military experience and look askance at those who do view as, well, psychopaths, in keeping with the time-honored tradition:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot…

This 2 percent cadre of men tends to gravitate toward the special forces — toward jobs such as that of the subject of “American Sniper,” who was a SEAL.

Anyway, I need to see the movie, and see what I can learn from it. As should anyone who wants to take some responsibility for what we send other men to do for us.

Joe Wilson questioning SecDef Hagel about ISIL

Just a little slice-of-life from Washington today. I’m listening to it myself as I post this. Here’s a release Wilson sent out with the clip:

WILSON: PRESIDENT NEEDS TO DEVOTE MORE ATTENTION TO ISIL

(Washington, DC) – Chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel Joe Wilson (SC-02) issued the following statement after questioning Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel about the Administration’s strategy and military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Middle East.

“The complete and systematic defeat of ISIL is imperative for the United States’ national security and the safety of our allies around the world,” Chairman Wilson stated.  “Achieving this outcome is growing increasingly difficult due to ISIL’s changing tactics and the President’s reluctance to listen to the advice of his experienced military advisors.  After today’s hearing, I am further convinced that the President needs to devote more resources and attention to effectively destroy ISIL. Additionally, I believe that a comprehensive plan, which considers all options presented from our military leaders, is critical to complete our mission, protect our national interests, and bring peace to Iraq and Syria.”

Graham, McCain blame Obama for not stopping ISIL earlier

This is from an op-ed piece by the two senators in National Review:

President Obama cannot avoid his share of responsibility for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). As dangerous as ISIS is now, its rise was neither inevitable nor unpredictable. Time after time, President Obama had the opportunity to act when U.S. engagement could have made a decisive difference, and in pulling back from America’s traditional leadership role, he left a vacuum for other, more dangerous actors to fill. As a result, the situation in Iraq and Syria has descended into a crisis that poses a direct threat to the United States. Worse yet, our options for countering this threat are fewer and far worse than they were just a few years ago.

At least four of President Obama’s key decisions stand out…

Boiled down, the four are:

  1. The “failure to leave a residual force in Iraq in 2011.”
  2. In 2012, “when President Obama’s entire senior national-security team — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Director David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey — identified the threat posed by radicalization in Syria and recommended a proposal to arm and train elements of the moderate Syrian opposition.”
  3. “President Obama’s decision not to strike the Assad regime in September 2013 after Assad crossed the president’s own red line…”
  4. “Finally, in the fall of 2013, President Obama refused to launch targeted strikes against ISIS in Iraq when some U.S officials and Iraqi leaders were urging him to do so…”

Hindsight is indeed 20/20, but in this case, a lot of people were seeing trouble back then, and trying to tell the president. Of the four, I continue to find No. 2 the most startling. That wasn’t about the president’s political opponents second-guessing him. It was about him ignoring his whole team.

HERE’s a strategy for dealing with ISIS: Let’s do them the way the Aggies did the Gamecocks

tan suit

And oh, yeah — what’s with the tan suit?

Yes, that headline is my way of admitting that I don’t have a strategy for dealing with ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State/QSIS. I don’t even know how to solve the confusion over what to call them.

But then, I’m not POTUS. And the man who is is taking a lot of flak for his honest admission yesterday that “We don’t have a strategy yet.” (Possibly the worst such gaffe since Toby Ziegler said C.J. Cregg could go to Ramallah to “swat at suicide bombers with her purse.”) Which he perhaps deserves, for having made some of the decisions that led to the metastatic growth of the former al Qaeda in Iraq that has turned into that new thing, a self-financing, blitzkrieging army of bloodthirsty terrorists.

But having left Iraq without any sort of residual force to act as a counterbalance to instability, and having ignored the advice of his entire national security team three years back when there was still a chance to prop up some moderate alternatives in Syria, I’m not entirely sure what the president should do, what we should do, now.

Which is why you might see me indulging myself in irrelevancies, with the rest of the ADD brigade, over such trivia as the president’s tan suit. Sorry about that. But truly, I’m at a loss for more helpful observations to offer.

And, oh, yeah — Russia is invading Ukraine with impunity. (At least the president is visiting Talinn to express support for a nervous NATO ally, for what that’s worth. I’m not sure how reassuring that will be. They’ll probably be on pins and needles hoping he doesn’t say the words, “red line.”)

Any ideas, folks? I’ll be glad to pass them up to the White House.

Seriously, I’m glad the president wants to get his ducks in a row and have a strategy, instead of the fits and starts of our actions thus far, which have had a “what are we actually trying to do?” feel about them. Although driving them from Mosul Dam was encouraging, as was rescuing the Yazidi. But we need something a little more thought-out, and effective, than a #bringbackourgirls type of reaction to outrages.

And I hope this administration is up to it. A lot of people — including, I saw this morning, Maureen Dowd and Eugene Robinson, not your usual Obama-hating suspects — seem to have their doubts these days.

Pope Francis says it’s OK to ‘stop’ the bad guys in Iraq

Breaking with a recent trend toward the Vatican disapproving of U.S. military actions in the world, Pope Francis says it’s OK to ‘stop’ aggressors in Iraq, while being a bit vague about how he believes they should be stopped:

“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Francis said aboard the papal plane. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”

When he says, “bomb,” however, he seems to be questioning the one means we’ve been using to stop ISIS.

And he also requires that actions to “stop” bad guys be multilateral, and particularly mentions the U.N.

The problem with that, from this Catholic layman’s point of view, is that sometimes — such as when you have thousands of men, women and children being starved out on a mountain — you can’t really afford to wait the three or four eons that it might take the U.N. to reach consensus. Sometimes Just War has to be waged in a hurry if it’s to achieve just aims.

But in any case, I’m glad to see a pope acknowledging that there is such a thing as Just War, even if he’s adding new prerequisites atop St. Augustine’s.

I appreciate that the pontiff wants there to be a high bar. Of course, it’s hard to find a higher one than one that will induce Barack “Red Line” Obama to take military action that doesn’t involve drones….

Patrick O’Brian’s depiction of the Yazidi, a.k.a. Dasni

Y’all know, from my frequent mentions, that I am a Patrick O’Brian fanatic, reading his novels about Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin over and over again. You know, the ones set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The best historical novels ever written.

Something that is much in the news the last couple of weeks rang a bell, so I went back and found the relevant passage in The Letter of Marque, the 12th novel in the series, and one of my favorites.

Here it is. It depicts a brief conversation between Maturin, a Catholic, and his good friend Nathaniel Martin, an Anglican clergyman:

Dasni1

Dasni2

 

I checked, and my hunch was right: The Dasni are the very Yazidi people whom we are trying, with our air strikes in Iraq, to protect from ISIS. Wikipedia, under its Yazidi entry, cites this description:

Yezidis (Arabic) [possibly from Persian yazdan god; or the 2nd Umayyad Caliph, Yazid (r. 680–683); or Persian city Yezd] A sect dwelling principally in Iraq, Armenia, and the Caucasus, who call themselves Dasni. Their religious beliefs take on the characteristics of their surrounding peoples, inasmuch as, openly or publicly, they regard Mohammed as a prophet, and Jesus Christ as an angel in human form. Points of resemblance are found with ancient Zoroastrian and Assyrian religion. The principal feature of their worship, however, is Satan under the name of Muluk-Taus. However, it is not the Christian Satan, nor the devil in any form; their Muluk-Taus is the hundred- or thousand-eyed cosmic wisdom, pictured as a bird (the peacock).

The boldfaced emphasis is mine.

So you see, my obsessive study of these novels is actually educational.

O’Brian was obsessive about detail, and took a certain delight in depicting interesting, little-known religious practices. You see a reference above to the Sethians, of whom I had never heard. They play a significant role in two or three of the novels, making up a significant portion of the crew of Surprise during her time as a private man of war.

But as obsessive as he was about detail in depicting real-life naval battles, such as Cochrane’s victory in the Speedy over the Gamo, or Broke’s in the Shannon over the USS Chesapeake in 1813, he would sometimes invent entirely fictional places. For instance, the Sethians (a real, though obscure, gnostic sect — the apocryphal Gospel of Judas is considered a Sethian document) who serve under Aubrey are from the fictional town of Shelmerston.

But it’s fascinating to learn that the Dasni are for real.

Unusual split between McCain, Graham on Iran, Iraq

This WashPost headline (“Wait, John McCain and Lindsey Graham are at odds? Yes — on Iran and Iraq“) grabbed my attention this morning:

Pick your favorite foreign policy debate and odds are hawkish Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) will be on the same side. Not so when it comes to the escalating situation in Iraq.

McCain on Monday warned sharply against the idea of collaborating with Iran to help the Iraqi government push back against radical Islamist fighters…

“It would be the height of folly to believe that the Iranian regime can be our partner in managing the deteriorating security situation in Iraq,” said McCain in a statement….

Appearing on the Sunday news shows, Graham cautiously endorsed the idea, provided certain conditions are met.

“Well, we’re going to probably need their help to hold Baghdad,” he said on CBS News’s “Face The Nation.”

On the same program, Graham said, “We need to all make sure Baghdad doesn’t fall

It’s not really a huge split, except that McCain’s language (“height of folly”)  is so emphatic. But worth making note.

Frankly, I’m intrigued by the implications of working with Iran for other issues. No, I don’t expect us to become big buddies and see them immediately drop their nuclear program for their new pals, but crises breed opportunity, and there could be one here — aside from the immediate tactical situation, which sees Iran in a better position to act than the U.S.

It’s going to be tough to work with the mullahs while simultaneously pressing Maliki to be less of a Shi’ite chauvinist (thereby making his regime one more worth saving), but it’s worth exploring.

So I think Graham’s being the more pragmatic and flexible here…

Editor’s note: The above video clip — one of my most popular ever — is NOT from this week. It’s from May 15, 2007.

OK, guys: No more selling cheap knockoffs in the Sunni Triangle, OK?

lon asgeles

“Armed Sunni fighters take up positions in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah.” Mohammed Jalil / EPA

First, by way of appeasing the Fair Use gods, allow me to point out that the above is merely a low-res screengrab of a far superior image over at The Washington Post (by Mohammed Jalil of european pressphoto agency) and that I urge you sincerely to follow the link and see the wonderful gallery of images of which it forms a mere part, and to enjoy lots of other great content at the WashPost, in fact to subscribe, and to give all your custom to that great newspaper’s advertisers.

And I’m using it in order to make an editorial point. A silly one, but a point nonetheless. Hence Fair Use, right?

This morning, in my continuing quest to send new readers to the Post, I Tweeted about this story, which on the main page of the Post‘s iPad app was headlined, “Iraq turmoil stirs fears of civil war.” My observation was that it “Looks like they’ve already got one.”

Robert Ariail followed the link, and noticed something I had missed: “Check out the RPG-toting dude wearing a ‘Lon Asgeles’ sweat shirt.”

Ow. I found myself wondering how much he shelled out for that jacket (which he’s managed to keep pretty clean given that he’s engaged in, or preparing to engage in, ground combat), and marveling at what a maelstrom of conflicting emotions must surge in that man’s breast. The jacket seems to speak, however imperfectly, to aspirations to embrace Western culture. Yet he’s fighting with the jihadists. What’s his back story? Was he so ticked off that somebody sold him a defective knockoff that it turned him into a terrorist? Or at least to take up arms, since the cutline on this photo doesn’t specify which faction he’s with?

Probably not, but one wonders…

WMDs finally found — on the streets of Boston

A piece of the WMD in question, according to the FBI.

A piece of the WMD in question, according to the FBI.

There’s something very ironic in the charge filed against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev today:

Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was charged today with using a weapon of mass destruction in the April 15 attacks that ripped through a crowd at the finish line of the world-renowned race, killing three people and injuring scores of others

Tsarnaev’s initial court appearance was conducted today by a federal magistrate judge in his hospital room, said Gary H. Wente, circuit executive for the federal courts in the First Circuit. Tsarnaev was able to respond to inquiries, nodding or mouthing yes or no, according to a person familiar with the proceedings in the room…

I realize that the law can have definitions that don’t necessarily match the ones we use out in the real world. But if those pressure-cooker bombs were WMDs, then we found plenty of them in Iraq. Every one one of those IEDs built from artillery shells would qualify.

Usually, we make a distinction between such conventional weapons and weapons of mass destruction, which in a military sense refers equally to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

But in civilian criminal law, it’s different, according to Wired:

The actual bomb Tsarnaev allegedly constructed and detonated is pretty much the opposite of what people think about when they think “weapon of mass destruction,” a vague term that usually means a weapon carrying an unconventional payload, like a nuclear, chemical or biological yield. The FBI affiant, Special Agent Daniel Genck, confirms the bombs used pressure cookers for their hulls — “of the same brand” — packed with “low grade explosive” containing BBs and nails and a “green hobby fuse.”

Bashar Assad’s chemical arsenal this ain’t. But, as Danger Room explained after U.S. citizen and anti-Assad fighter Eric Harroun, faced similar charges, “weapon of mass destruction” is a very broad category under federal law. Grenades, mines, missiles and rockets all apply. So do homemade bombs of the sort Tsarnaev allegedly constructed. About all that doesn’t apply are firearms and pyrotechnics gear. No one ever said the law had to coincide with military terminology.

It’s an interesting choice for an initial charge. Not murder or accessory to murder. Not resisting arrest. I’m going to be interested to learn more about this prosecutorial decision…

Graham’s on Hagel’s case (and he’s not alone)

As Washington media gather the soundbites on the Obama administration’s nomination of Republican Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, one of the first gathered is Lindsey Graham’s:

“This is an in-your-face nomination by the president. And it looks like the second term of Barack Obama is going to be an in-your-face term.”

Of course, that quote is distinctly lacking in substance. Here’s what Graham said further on CNN’s “State of the Union”:

“Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be the secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history,” Graham said. “Not only has he said you should directly negotiate with Iran, sanctions won’t work, that Israel should directly negotiate with the Hamas organization, a terrorist group that lobs thousands of rockets into Israel. He also was one of 12 senators who refused to sign a letter to the European Union that Hezbollah should be designated as a terrorist organization.”

Beyond Graham, those Republican senators vocalizing opposition to Hagel include Roger Wicker of Mississippi,  John Cornyn of Texas, Ted Cruz of Texas, David Vitter of Louisiana, and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.Chuck_Hagel_official_photo

In the plus column are Democrats Carl Levin of Michigan, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Dianne Feinstein of California, and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia.

That’s all according to The Washington Post.

Much of the animus toward Hagel dates from his opposition to U.S. involvement in Iraq. Then there’s his opposition to Iran sanctions. Then there’s his “Jewish lobby” quote. And gay rights advocates are still mad about something he said in 1998.

Evidently, the Susan Rice experience didn’t diminish the president’s willingness to engage in a nomination fight as his second term begins…

Petraeus quits over extramarital affair

Well, this is shocking, and sad, news:

CIA Director David Petraeus resigned Friday, citing an extramarital affair and “extremely poor judgement.”

In a letter released to the CIA work force on Friday afternoon, Petraeus disclosed the affair, and wrote: “Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”

President Obama “graciously accepted my resignation,” he wrote…

I’m bracing myself for an onslaught of bad jokes playing on the word “surge.”

This is a sad thing for all involved. Petraeus has done a great deal for his country, and it’s terrible for his career to end in such an ignominious manner.

I’ll even refrain from noting that this is the way an honorable man behaves when he has fallen, by contrast with such people as Bill Clinton and Mark Sanford, who stay in office and drag the world through the sordidness with them.

OK, maybe I won’t refrain. But I won’t go on about it…

“Eisenhower of our generation” visits Columbia

Some guy who needs a haircut, the general in mufti, and our senior senator./photo by Christy Cox

Gen. David Petraeus, now of the CIA, spoke today in Columbia, at the Riley Institute’s David Wilkins Awards for Excellence in Legislative and Civic Leadership luncheon.

Rep. James Smith and former Blue Cross CEO Ed Sellers were the recipients. It was James (a.k.a. Capt. Smith) who, in his acceptance speech, called Petraeus “the Eisenhower of our generation.” I concur. There’s no general officer in recent years who combines Ike’s strategic vision, diplomatic skill and leadership qualities to the extent that Gen. Petraeus does.

For his part, Petraeus praised not only James and Ed, but the troops he has felt privileged to lead before joining Central Intelligence. He called them “our new greatest generation.”

Those who serve certainly deserve that sobriquet. The difference is that they are only a tiny sliver of an actual generation, unlike the one that overcame the Depression and beat Hitler and Tojo.

Which only underlines how much the rest of us owe to them, each of them, from the commanding general to the lowliest buck private.

ALREADY they’re starting with this in Iraq?

OK, we just left, and already they’re up to these kinds of shenanigans in Iraq?

Washington U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John McCain (R-Arizona) released the following statement on recent developments in Iraq:

“We are alarmed by recent developments in Iraq, most recently the warrant issued today by the Maliki government for the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashimi. This is a clear sign that the fragile political accommodation made possible by the surge of 2007, which ended large-scale sectarian violence in Iraq, is now unraveling. This crisis has been precipitated in large measure by the failure and unwillingness of the Obama Administration to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government for a residual presence of U.S. forces in Iraq, thereby depriving Iraq of the stabilizing influence of the U.S. military and diminishing the ability of the United States to support Iraq.

“If Iraq slides back into sectarian violence, the consequences will be catastrophic for the Iraqi people and U.S. interests in the Middle East, and a clear victory for al Qaeda and Iran. A deterioration of the kind we are now witnessing in Iraq was not unforeseen, and now the U.S. government must do whatever it can to help Iraqis stabilize the situation. We call upon the Obama Administration and the Iraqi government to reopen negotiations with the goal of maintaining an effective residual U.S. military presence in Iraq before the situation deteriorates further.”

####

Let’s hope it’s not as bad as Sens. Graham and McCain worry that it is. I mean, hope’s all we have left, right?

Requiescat in pace, Christopher Hitchens — if you’ll forgive the seeming contradiction

I’m sad to see that Christopher Hitchens is no longer among us. On a trivial level, I’m sorry because reading him was such a guilty pleasure, as he sliced and diced viewpoints — and people — with whom he disagreed.

On a deeper level, I have the traditional regret, as a Catholic, for the loss of an unshriven soul. Not that I wanted to see Hitchens make a deathbed conversion. That would have seemed cheap theatrics, and it would have sent the wrong message — that our relationship with God should be based on existential terror. I just wish he’d changed his mind at some point, before now.

It was always impressive to see the way his mind worked, fairly crackling through any subject you may like, and totally unapologetic for opinions that were unpopular. And I don’t just say that because he agreed with me on Iraq, which probably distressed a lot of his free-thinking friends.

But I mourn the fact that his incisive, energetic mind always came up with the wrong answer when it ran the God equation. He would have been a good one to have on the other side. You know, the side of the angels, as they say.

As a believer, then, it falls to me to say, May God have mercy upon his soul. And I mean it. I wish him the best in the life he did not expect.

This is NOT the “end of the war in Iraq”

I was pleased when I heard, on the radio yesterday, President Obama saying this at Fort Bragg:

As your Commander-in-Chief, I can tell you that it will indeed be a part of history. Those last American troops will move south on desert sands, and then they will cross the border out of Iraq with their heads held high. One of the most extraordinary chapters in the history of the American military will come to an end. Iraq’s future will be in the hands of its people. America’s war in Iraq will be over.

I appreciated it because he said “America’s war in Iraq will be over.” At another point in the speech, he referred to the “end of our combat mission,” which was even better, and emphasized that what was happening was that responsibility was being handed over to Iraqi forces.

I was grateful that he had not said this was “the end of the war.” (I was also gratified that he, only slightly grudgingly, spoke of the troops accomplishment: “we’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people.” Something that, of course, we would not have done had Mr. Obama had his way.)

This was, unfortunately, about the only place where I would be so gratified. Elsewhere in the speech, he said “end of the war” over and over and over again. But I don’t blame the president. The news media were worse:

And on and on. Among those I saw in a quick survey, only NPR got it right, in a headline that said “Iraq Mission Ends.”

Maybe I’m the only one who cares. But I became hypersensitized to the matter over all these years of antiwar folks saying “end the war,” when what they meant was that they wanted the U.S. forces to withdraw. Which is an entirely different thing.

The “end of the war in Iraq” is either something that happened several years in the past (the interpretation I prefer), or, more ominously, has yet to occur. There are a number of ways that you can speak, legitimately, of “the end of the Iraq war:”

  • You can say it ended with the fall of Baghdad in the spring of 2003, as that was when “war” in the Clausewitzian sense of armies clashing on battlefields with battle lines, and the control of a government at stake.
  • You can say it ended with the Surge, which settled down the various insurgencies that erupted after the fall of Baghdad, leading most people speaking of a “war” continuing to that point.
  • You can say it never ended, because Iraq’s security is far from that, say, of a Switzerland.

But in that last case — if you believe the “war” has continued up to this point — then withdrawing U.S. forces most assuredly does not “end” that war. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anything more likely to make fighting flare back up dramatically.

I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope that President Obama (and Bush before him) are right in their projection that things are sufficiently stable for Iraq to deal with the security vacuum created by a U.S. departure. I don’t know whether they are or not.

But I know this: Speaking of what is happening this month as “the end of the war” is highly inaccurate.

Combat ‘sensitivity training’

Can’t say I was crazy about the headline, which aside from the awkwardly split infinitive seems to presume aberration as the norm (probably unintentionally). But I found the idea intriguing:

Can soldiers be trained to not become war criminals?

Halfway through a 15 month, high-intensity combat deployment in Iraq,  soldiers were shown videos of ethically dicey situations they might encounter with civilians. The question researchers wanted to answer was: can soldiers who are already suffering enormous amounts of stress — literally fearing for their lives — be trained to stop and think long enough to prevent unethical behavior?

The answer, happily, is yes. In a study published in the Lancet, researchers concluded that a combination of videos and leader-led discussion groups led to “significantly lower rates of unethical conduct of soldiers and greater willingness to report and address misconduct than in those before training.”

From the paper:

For example, reports of unnecessary damage or destruction of private property decreased from 13·6% before training to 5·0% after training, and willingness to report a unit member for mistreatment of a non-combatant increased from 36·0% to 58·9%. Nearly all participants reported that training made it clear how to respond towards non-combatants.

You wouldn’t think “sensitivity training” or its equivalent would work in the highest stress environment on the planet, but apparently it does. One caveat: soldier’s ethical or unethical behavior was self-reported, so it’s possible that soldiers who had the training were simply reporting less of it because they had been made aware that it was wrong. But isn’t that exactly the mechanism by which ethics training works?

Of course, it sort of militates against the training of U.S. soldiers since the Korean War — training in acquiring targets rapidly and firing immediately and accurately (which makes our soldiers deadlier than any since the introduction of firearms, but leads to a lot of PTSD, since it leads to shooting first and thinking about it later).

But with the kinds of conflicts we face these days, it’s more important than ever to be sure to shoot at the right targets — not only morally, but in terms of eventual effectiveness. One of the greatest pitfalls in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is alienating the civilian populace through mistakes.

So while I’m not entirely convinced that such training works, I hope it does. We need soldiers to shoot straight, but they have to be more sure than ever it’s the bad guys they’re shooting at. For their sakes and the sake of the country as well as for the innocent bystanders.

‘War in the name of democracy,’ 1775-style

On this Veteran’s Day (I prefer “Armistice Day,” but whatever), the WSJ had an op-ed piece headlined, “America’s Distinctive Way of War,” by Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University. The headline doesn’t quite give away the topic. The thesis is that much about U.S. military doctrine evolved from our encounters with an enemy that to modern minds may seem unlikely: Canada. While much of it is largely forgotten now, over a 200-year period there was a lot of nasty business along “what Indians called ‘the Great Warpath,’ the 200-mile route of water and woodland paths that connected Albany and Montreal…”

There was a lot in the piece that was interesting, whether you fully accept the Canadian premise or not. Such as this:

War in the name of democracy? In 1775, the rebelling colonies—not even yet the United States — launched an invasion of Canada. The Continental Congress ordered the covert distribution of propaganda pamphlets in what is now Quebec province. The opening line: “You have been conquered into liberty.” Congress subsequently sent Benjamin Franklin north with a few companions to consolidate the conquest of Montreal, spread parliamentary government, and familiarize the baffled habitants of Canada — ruled for over a decade with mild firmness by a British governor—with the doctrines of habeas corpus and a free press.

The American way of war is distinctive. If the armed services have an unofficial motto, it is “Whatever it takes”—a mild phrase with ferocious implications. All that those words imply, including a disregard for military tradition and punctilio, the objective of dismantling an enemy and not merely defeating him, and downright ruthlessness, can be found in the battles of the Great Warpath.

It is often a paradoxical way of war. “Conquering into liberty” sounds absurd or hypocritical. In the case of Canada, it failed (though of course Canada took its own path to free government). In the cases of Germany, Italy and Japan after World War II, it succeeded. In the case of Iraq, who knows? In all of these episodes American motives were deeply mixed — realpolitik and idealism intertwining with one another in ways that even the strategists conceiving these campaigns did not fully grasp. What matters is that the notion of conquering into liberty is rooted deep in the American past, and in the ideas and circumstances that gave this country birth…

There is nothing new, apparently, under the sun.

Some thoughts on the president’s Mideast speech

Coverage of President Obama’s speech today is concentrating on one big item related to the conflict between Israel and Palestinians: “Obama Sees ’67 Borders as Starting Point for Peace Deal.” Plenty is being said about that.

Setting that aside, here are my favorite parts of his speech today:

He didn’t sugarcoat the way people have been manipulated in the region for too long: “In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere. The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half century after the end of colonialism. Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression. Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.”

He made sure no one could doubt where we stand on the change sweeping the region (while specific responses to specific situations may, and should, vary): “Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short term interests do not align perfectly with our long term vision of the region. But we can – and will – speak out for a set of core principles – principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months:

“The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.
“We support a set of universal rights. Those rights include free speech; the freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of religion; equality for men and women under the rule of law; and the right to choose your own leaders – whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran.
“And finally, we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.”
When he WAS specific, he was generally right: “The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy. President Assad now has a choice: he can lead that transition, or get out of the way. The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests; release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests; allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition. Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and isolated abroad.”
Finally, he committed us to the most empowering thing we can do for people in the region, and for ourselves — help them bring something other than oil to the world economy: “Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa. If you take out oil exports, this region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland. So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement. Just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.”

Were there weaknesses? Yes, from my perspective. I could have done without another ritualistic slap at our decision to go into Iraq, which took this form: “…we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to impose regime change by force – no matter how well-intended it may be.”
But I don’t think he meant it quite as negatively as that sounded at first, as I determined upon rereading it. I realized that after I heard this strong endorsement of what has been achieved there: “In Iraq, we see the promise of a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian democracy. There, the Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence for a democratic process, even as they have taken full responsibility for their own security. Like all new democracies, they will face setbacks. But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress. As they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.” None of which would have happened, of course, with Saddam Hussein still in power.
On the whole, a speech that hit the right notes, and was a coherent and appropriate American response to a complex web of events and issues of critical importance to the world.
Good job.

Some thoughts on Robert Gates’ recent remarks

I like that headline. Sort of 19th century-sounding in its plainness. Anyway, moving on…

Back on the previous post, Phillip said:

This is somewhat indirectly related to issues raised by #1, but I couldn’t help wondering what you made of Sec’y Gates’ remarkable speech at West Point last week:

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/26/world/26gates.html

And I responded in a comment that seems worth a separate post, to wit…

Phillip, I had several thoughts about Gates’ remark (which, for those who missed it, was “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.”):

  • First, my facetious reaction — Asia? Africa? Middle East? So that leaves what? Europe? Australia? South America? Antarctica? Quite a sweeping set of eliminations. Next thing you know, we won’t be able to go war anywhere, and he’ll be out of a job. Golly, I wonder if the world will cooperate with us on that, and make sure, out of sympathy to our preferences, that the next crisis demanding a deployment of U.S. ground troops happens in, say, Sydney. MayBE, but it seems unlikely.
  • I like Robert Gates (here’s a column I did about him in 2006), have liked him ever since he became CIA director in the 80s (and especially liked him when he delivered us from the disaster of Rumsfeld), so he has my sympathy. And I fully understand why someone who’s had the challenges he’s had as SecDef.
  • From a pragmatic standpoint, what he says makes all the sense in the world. That’s why the option we’re looking at in Libya is a no-fly zone — you know, the mode we were in in Iraq for 12 years during the “cease-fire” in that war against Saddam that started in 1990 and ended in 2003. It’s manageable, we can do it easily enough (we and the Brits are the only ones with the demonstrated ability to provide this service to the people of Libya and the world). Air superiority is something we know how to assert, and use.
  • Ground forces are a huge commitment — a commitment that the United States in the 21st century appears politically unwilling to make. If you’re a pragmatist like Gates — and he is, the consummate professional — you consider that when you’re considering whether the goals are achievable. We’ve demonstrated back here on the home front that we’re unable to commit FULLY to a nation-building enterprise the way we did in 1945. It takes such a single-minded dedication on every level — military, economic, diplomatic — and that takes sustained commitment. One is tempted to say that there’s something particular about Americans today that prevents such a consensus — our 50-50, bitter political division, for instance — but really, this is the norm in U.S. history. The anomaly was 1945. It took two world wars for us to bring us to the point that we could make that kind of commitment.

So there you go. I had another bullet in mind, but was interrupted (blast that person from Porlock!), and it hasn’t come back to me yet. Please share your own thoughts…

Leon Lott’s just saving the world, isn’t he?

First, my twin, Sheriff Leon Lott, magnanimously agrees to solve one of the city of Columbia’s knottiest problems by taking over its police department.

Now this:

Lott heads to Iraq to train police forces

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has been invited to travel to Iraq to train Iraqi police forces.
The sheriff traveled to Iraq at the invitation of the U.S. Army and the S.C. State Guard where he is a provost marshal, said sheriff’s department spokeswoman Monique Mack. Lott will be at the Iraq Police College for two to three weeks.
While in Iraq, Lott will teach courses in community policing and will talk about the importance of having women on a police force, Mack said.
– Noelle Phillips

Ol’ Leon’s just saving the world, isn’t he? He’s pretty much got my endorsement for his next election sewn up.

Next: Mideast Peace!…