Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Col. Hackworth Makes a Resolution

You may have heard that Secretary Rumsfeld was, until recently, having his condolence letters to the families of U.S. troops killed in Iraq signed by a machine. What apparently prompted him to start performing this sad duty personally was the fact that Stars and Stripes was about to publish a story on his failure, up until now, to do so.

But it seems that the person most responsible for forcing poor Rumsfeld to run a heightened risk of carpel tunnel is none other than the Pentagon's ancient nemesis, David Hackworth--the man who, as the youngest colonel in Vietnam, looked into a TV camera in 1971 and declared that the war couldn't be won, and that it was time to get out.

Well, Col. Hackworth has made his New Year's resolution, and it's a Dusey:
Considering the hits we keep taking in our global fight against terrorism, I'm gearing up in '05 to go up against the Pentagon's increasingly out-of-control campaign to keep us all conned. The cover-ups track too often with more names added to the U.S. casualty list.

So here's my New Year's resolution: to keep countering Pentagon lies with the truth until enough concerned citizens demand that Congress set up a congressional investigative arm to formally expose the liars and hold them accountable.
Why is Hack so torqued? It seems that the Rumsfeld Pentagon's habit of treating the American citizenry like mushrooms (keep them in the dark and feed them bullshit) finally pushed the old soldier too far:
The final straw for me was when I asked Pentagon flack Jim Turner last November if Donald Rumsfeld personally signed the letters to the loved ones of those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. A day later he told me, "Rumsfeld signs the letters himself."

But before the sun had set, he sent me the following e-mail: Our official response follows. Jim. "The SECDEF correspondence with any family members of DoD (Department of Defense) personnel is private in nature."

Then Stars & Stripes reporter Leo Shane III contacted me, jumped onto the story with both boots and brilliantly wore the Pentagon lie machine down into finally confessing that Rumsfeld had not personally signed all the KIA letters.

Okaaaaay. If Rummy & Spinners are into lying about signing KIA letters, then what really went down with WMDs in Iraq, and how is our $6 billion-a-month war in that sad, bloody land really going? And is the Pentagon truly busting its butt to provide our soldiers with sufficient armor protection, or is that spin, too?
In other words: A Pentagon vain and petty enough to lie about whether its chief is bothering to ink his own name on letters to the families of the fallen, is a Pentagon that cares more about looking bad than it does about anything else--including the troops' welfare, including winning. If that seems a harsh judgment, remember that the same highly-decorated young colonel who said it was time to get out in '71, also said that a North Vietnamese flag would be flying over Saigon in four years.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Why We Are Losing In Iraq

Gregory Djerejian of Belgravia Dispatch generously excerpts a much-quoted Economist article on the poor state of the counter-insurgency in Iraq. Djerejian's entire post (or, for Economist subscribers, I suppose, the whole article) is very much worth reading, but here is the part that lept out at me:
[T]he Americans had not visited the nearby smugglers' town of Baij in force for three months, until they rode there one recent night in a convoy of 1,000 troops, with Apache attack helicopters flying overhead. The target was three houses in the town centre which signal intelligence had linked to Mr Zarqawi's group. The Americans had no further intelligence to support their mission except that provided by an informant from the local Ayzidi tribe, America's main ally in the area. This source claimed there was a wounded Yemeni rebel in the town. "I think it should be a great operation," said Colonel Robert Brown, beforehand. "I think a lot of folks from Fallujah have gone there and we need to go there."

There was no one in the three targeted houses bar women and children. Baij's police station had been blown up and its police had fled. The town's English-speaking former mayor, Abdullah Fahad, was frank about the town's allegiances. "There are terrorists here, not from Syria, not from Mosul, but from Baij. Some are Baathists and some are Islamists and before they hated each other but now they work together, and they tell people that if they don't work with them they will kill them."

Mr Fahad, who claimed to have survived several assassination attempts and whose son had been kidnapped, refused to help the Americans on the grounds that he would be murdered if he did. When the American commander offered to protect him, he replied: "Thank you, but you are not always here. This is the first time I have ever seen you." Whereupon the American troops labelled Mr Fahad a "bad guy", and debated whether to detain him.
We have done, and are doing, plenty of things wrong in Iraq--almost all of them attributable to the Bush Administration's astonishing combination of naivete and arrogance. But all of the Administration's mistakes--the too-few troops, the wrong force mix, the failure to prevent looting and chaos in the aftermath of regime collapse, the favoring of untrustworthy exiles with no local legitimacy, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the use of air and artillery power in civilian areas, the reliance on arbitrary detention and torture, the long delay and slow pace of the reconstruction effort, the failure to give all major ethnic groups a stake in the institution-building process, and so on and on--all of the Administration's errors of commission and omission, come down to this:

We are losing this war because Mr. Fahad knows that troops who show up in Baij every three months are in no position to protect him from the local Islamists and Baathists who plan to kill him, should he start cooperating with the Americans.

The gung-ho response to the complexities of counter-insurgency is always some version of, "Get them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow." Moral considerations aside, here's the problem with that strategy in (you should pardon the expression) a nutshell: In a counter-insurgency, someone (namely, the insurgency) already has them (that is, those among the population who might conceivably aid your cause) by the balls. That, precisely, is what an insurgency aims at--the goal it constantly strives to achieve and maintain, the way a regular military force strives to capture and hold territory.

Of course, the counter-insurgent power can (whether in self-defense or out of sheer frustration at the enemy's elusiveness) decide to blow some of the insurgents, along (inevitably) with some of the captive populace, sky high. But after the smoke has cleared, and the troops have fallen back, some other insurgents will still be there, or will quickly get back in. Soon enough, they will have Mr. Fahad by the short hairs once more. And three months is an awfully long time to ask someone to hold that position, while awaiting your return.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

How Great Must Be Their Sin

Brad De Long notes that it's not at all clear what David Brooks means to say in his column on the tsunami. Admittedly, Brooks dances around this theme, but I think Professor De Long is being too generous here. It's pretty obvious that the following paragraphs are designed to make us long for the good old days when religion's ability to give meaning to suffering on such a scale was unimpaired by the modern disenchantment of the world:
Human beings have always told stories to explain deluges such as this. Most cultures have deep at their core a flood myth in which the great bulk of humanity is destroyed and a few are left to repopulate and repurify the human race. In most of these stories, God is meting out retribution, punishing those who have strayed from his path. The flood starts a new history, which will be on a higher plane than the old.

Nowadays we find these kinds of explanations repugnant. It is repugnant to imply that the people who suffer from natural disasters somehow deserve their fate. And yet for all the callousness of those tales, they did at least put human beings at the center of history.

In those old flood myths, things happened because human beings behaved in certain ways; their morality was tied to their destiny. Stories of a wrathful God implied that at least there was an active God, who had some plan for the human race. At the end of the tribulations there would be salvation.

If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami this past week, you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe's main concern. We're just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves.
Note that Brooks does not say that moral explanations of disaster are, in fact, repugnant--he says the "we" find them so "nowadays," and that he attributes meaninglessness, not directly to the event itself, but rather to "the discussion [of it] this past week." This is the rhetoric of conservative lamentation.

Brooks comes within a hair's breath of condemning us precisely for not finding a moral meaning in the catastrophe. He can't quite bring himself to do that, so instead he tries to make us feel the lack of it, and also a bit of guilt for wallowing in the (I guess) metaphysical correctness that "nowadays" (sadly) keeps us from achieving this kind of solace. That is why (to Professor De Long's puzzlement) Brooks obtusely insists, at the end of his column, that now is a time to feel "deeply bad," not just for the victims, but "for those of us who have no explanation."

This kind of thing cannot be rejected too vehemently. There is, Lord knows, precious little evidence of spiritual progress in human history. One of the very few exceptions is the dawning of the idea (it sure took us long enough) that really terrible things happen to totally innocent people for no moral reason at all. To be sure, this refusal to acknowledge this essential innocence of becoming was, throughout long ages of human history, as natural a posture of the human mind as, say, the ability to tolerate slavery, or the subjection of women, and still think oneself righteous. To persist in it under modern conditions, however, is a species of moral idiocy.

Not having "an explanation" (by which Brooks means, of course, a meaning -- explanation is hardly lacking) for this cataclysm is not something we should feel "deeply bad" about. Apart from the narcissism of this pose ("It's wrong to turn it into a story about us," says Brooks, in a column whose entire rhetorical purpose is to do exactly this), the moral-philosophical judgment underlying it is exactly backwards.

We should feel relief, and even a modest pride, that we are no longer the kind of people who are willing to heap moral opprobrium upon the innocent victims of a disaster in order to preserve some childish assurance of our own conformity to the underlying order of the universe--that we no longer feel compelled to say, "How great must be their sin, who suffer so horribly." No doubt there are costs associated with this new liberty from the old compulsion to moralize the world. All momentous cultural changes carry such costs. In this case, however, they are costs we should be happy to pay.

The thing to feel "deeply bad" about--if you want to focus on the witnesses of this event, rather than its victims--is that this freedom from metaphysical schadenfreude is hardly yet universal. I seem to recall that, even after 9/11, some rather powerful voices on the side of the contemporary 'values' debate with which Brooks associates himself (I am thinking of course of Messrs. Fallwell and Roberts) were more than eager to provide edifying interpretations about just which groups in America were being given divine payback, and for what sins.

I do not recall whether Brooks felt deeply bad about this at the time, but it sure made me long for the good old days--when democracies could still osctracize those who had become too odious to the life of the polis.