Must reads of the day, Iraq War (or ending thereof) edition:
Mike Few at Small Wars Council; have a quiet moment ready.
Boys, so many of you did not make it to see this day. I love you and miss you much. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. Iraq is still a mess, but, officially, the U.S. heavy involvement is done. I wish that you were here to see it. I wish that I could write a letter to each one of you, but I can’t. There’s too many- 30 of y’all to date not counting Afghanistan. I’m gonna start at the beginning.
Today is a strange day. The Army promoted me to Major. Andy Hilmes is about to be a battalion commander. Can you believe that? I’m gonna be who I set out to be. I promised y’all that I would do my best. I stayed the course.
Gulliver, on refuting assumptions about millennial attitudes post-Iraq War.
You know what else has limits? The explanatory power of age-based demographic binning. Let’s give it up. Stuff like this is tired, and it doesn’t teach us anything. Are some of us going to draw the same lessons as Elizabeth Dickinson? Sure. Are some of us going to draw the same lessons as Duncan Hunter, Jr., who is 33 and probably doesn’t agree with a single damned thing Elizabeth Dickinson wrote? Sure. We’re not “the Iraq war generation.” That generation may exist in the Army and Marine Corps — a limited, more experientially and culturally homogenous grouping, and one that’s been directly shaped by personal experience with that war — but it doesn’t exist in society. One of the great “lessons of Iraq” is this: people in a society as broad and rich and disparate as the U.S. will always find ways to disagree about what’s best for the country and its security. Let’s not contribute to polarization and acrimony by suggesting that there’s one appropriate way to have experienced the last decade.
I too am wary of painting my (our?) generation with a broad brush. I’m in the later half of my twenties, and the one thing I can say with absolute certainty about my peers and the Iraq war is that for 2/3 of them this whole war business “slipped their minds” in favor of playing Halo or trying to find a job to pay off their student loans or deciding whether they wanted an iPhone or a Droid. Should Dickerson’s piece be qualified even further than what she states near the end of her piece:
Of course, I am but a subset of my demographic group, and no one authorized me to speak on behalf of my peers. But like the generation that grew up in Vietnam, we will be the Iraq generation. What that means is not yet clear, but it begins now. It’s day one of life with no Iraq War.
by saying that even this is only relevant for the, let’s face it, minority of people in the millennial generation who think of “foreign policy” as something more than that wicked backpacking trip through Germany the summer before senior year; or of those who even think of places outside the United States at all. Because I’m going to say that my generation, as much as you can loosely categorize a group of otherwise disparate humans into a collective based on something as broad as age, is as insular as most in the sense that the border of thinking ends at the border of this country, if it doesn’t end at exactly where one lives and works. Claiming any kind of real awareness of Iraq and Afghanistan as nations and not “stuff that shows up in the news a lot” seems to be giving great leeway to my millennial peers that I frankly do not believe exists. I would bet anyone a beer (but not Bud Light Lime) that more twenty-somethings have watched the 82nd Airborne GaGa-dancing than have read a single news report on the effects of counterinsurgency on the advancement of the Afghan people.
I’m pretty cynical on this, I know. It’s borne from my own experience. Dickinson’s article requires at least one (probably more) caveat: her points only apply to those who are paying attention in the first place.
While driving along 14th of Ramadan Street in Baghdad recently, I remembered that street’s heyday. It was a jubilant street, with an assortment of boutiques, cafes, and toy shops. I saw that some of the shops had been closed since the worst days of 2006 and 2007.
The driver frowned at my remark.
“You did not see what it was like during the years of anarchy,” he said. “It is a fiesta now. It is evening now, and look how crowded the streets are with pedestrians and cars. Back then it closed at noon and you did not see a bird in the highway, because snipers were on both sides of the street. It was a street of horror. We are blessed now.”
Over coffee, my friend’s face had gradually taken on a look of appalled horror. It is no surprise. She lives in a country where human life is sacred and cherished.
I think it is appropriately the Age of the Diplomat in Iraq from this point onward; but Mousa’s post suggests how far those civilians have yet to go.
I’ve been inattentive this week–I’m co-ordinating my office’s move, the first in eight years. How much junk can ten people collect in eight years? A lot, a whole lot, of junk. So until we’re into the new place on August 2, posting will be light to nonexistent. Apologies.
I’ve been reading David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, which may come in as the most difficult book I’ve read thus far this year. And I haven’t been shying away from the hard stuff. Finkel’s observations have a grinding, struggling quality to them. It’s as if he’s describing a drowning in slow motion, wrenching every excruciating detail from the scene and reconstructing it with some of the layers removed to show you the pain and fear in high definition.
In some ways, this is just a variation on the themes explored in Sebastian Junger’s War or The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell. Stories about soldiers given a task for which they couldn’t be fully prepared, for which there can never be sufficient training; soldiers learning truths about themselves and about life. The hard realities of being in wars which were never meant to be wars.
Where Finkel veers off, though, is in the nature and tone of his descriptions. He scours away the extraneous, leaving behind a stark frame of a story. He clearly wants you to draw your own conclusions, but informs the way you draw them from the way he structures his prose.
There’s a clear and unaffected respect for the soldiers he observes. But Finkel draws on the disgust and bewilderment and FUBARness of the situation by strategically placing certain lines that change your perception of the story he’s telling.
This is not necessarily a criticism, mind. More something I’ve noted over halfway into the book. It does make it a challenge to read at times, because the thread of agenda, or at least of desired perception, is more evident to me now than when I started it. “The Good Soldiers” is a book for a whiskey and ginger evening, when you can lose yourself in the pages and come out the next day not remembering it clearly. Hard to read, but worthwhile for that fact.
I’ve resisted posting about the Wikileaks video from last month because I didn’t really have anything intelligent to add. From every angle there’s acceptable criticism–the burden of freedom of information, the creedo of defence secrecy and security, the very real consequences of the soldiers’ actions, cover-up vs. scandal. In general, my consideration is that leaking this footage has done more net harm than net good; but now that it exists and is out there, it should be dealt with head-on in inquiry and investigative reporting.
The story took a new turn today as news of the arrest of the leaker became public. From Threat Level:
SPC Bradley Manning, 22, of Potomac, Maryland, was stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer, 40 miles east of Baghdad, where he was arrested nearly two weeks ago by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. A family member says he’s being held in custody in Kuwait, and has not been formally charged.
Manning was turned in late last month by a former computer hacker with whom he spoke online. In the course of their chats, Manning took credit for leaking a headline-making video of a helicopter attack that Wikileaks posted online in April. The video showed a deadly 2007 U.S. helicopter air strike in Baghdad that claimed the lives of several innocent civilians.
You know, he’s just a kid, but spreading bravado over the internet about what you may or may not have done is not the smartest of moves. Especially if you’re on early discharge. The man he spoke to over chat was the person who turned him in, which is where the story takes another twist:
Lamo has contributed funds to Wikileaks in the past, and says he agonized over the decision to expose Manning — he says he’s frequently contacted by hackers who want to talk about their adventures, and he has never considered reporting anyone before. The supposed diplomatic cable leak, however, made him believe Manning’s actions were genuinely dangerous to U.S. national security.
“I wouldn’t have done this if lives weren’t in danger,” says Lamo, who discussed the details with Wired.com following Manning’s arrest. “He was in a war zone and basically trying to vacuum up as much classified information as he could, and just throwing it up into the air.”
Someone associated from Wikileaks leaked the leaker? Honestly, Stieg Larsson couldn’t have written it better.
What interests me about this whole story, though, is the perception of Wikileaks as editorializing the video–which is certainly true, given the extensive rendering, researching, and editing that went into the video before its posting–when Wikileaks never explicitly claimed impartiality. Its editors almost always provided commentary alongside the documents they exposed, and they never claimed or aspired to be journalistic. It seems rather that Wikileaks, and its founder Julian Assange, intended only to provide documents so that other journalists might pick them up and review them, investigating on their own to verify the documents’ authenticity. That’s a very different spin on the leak from “Wikileaks is showing journalistic bias!” Of course they’re showing bias. But they’re providing the document for all to review to combat their bias.
The New Yorker this week has an in-depth profile of Assange and Wikileaks which actually may do more harm to Wikileaks’ general credibility given the detailed descriptions of Assange’s haphazard lifestyle. But this paragraph (in the very long, but worthwhile-to-read article) stuck out at me:
After the press conference in Washington, I met Assange in New York, in Bryant Park. He had brought his luggage with him, because he was moving between the apartments of friends of friends. We sat near the fountain, and drank coffee. That week, Assange was scheduled to fly to Berkeley, and then to Italy, but back in Iceland the volcano was erupting again, and his flight to Europe was likely to change. He looked a bit shell-shocked. “It was surprising to me that we were seen as such an impartial arbiter of the truth, which may speak well to what we have done,” he told me. But he also said, “To be completely impartial is to be an idiot. This would mean that we would have to treat the dust in the street the same as the lives of people who have been killed.”
Not journalists, but not an organization without commentary. It doesn’t absolve them of anything–and they hardly want absolution anyhow–but it would be a mistake to attribute some lessening of principle to Wikileaks by producing and commenting on the video. It is exactly within the line of their principle, of which another is to invite verification and criticism of what they publish by providing the data. A more sustaining argument would be, how much editing did the video undergo? What did it look like in its raw form?
But I wonder if those questions ever will–or should–be answered. Or asked.
ETA: For more, see Greyhawk.
Right now, I’m reading Richard Engel’s A Fist in the Hornet’s Nest, which is his account of being an American journalist in Baghdad before, during, and after the initial US invasion of Iraq. It’s something of a mediocre book, where the events are more compelling than his ability to write about them, but he certainly does have an understanding of the Middle East/Central Asia borne of a decade of being there.
However, this passage stood out to me today.
I tried to back away, but found myself surrounded by people cheering, “Allahu Akhbar!” Arabic for God is greatest. The phrase is the heart of the prayers pious Muslims perform five times a day. It embodies everything Muslims believe, which is fundamentally that God–Allah–is greater than human existence and that a Muslim–a word that literally mean in Arabic a person who “surrenders”–must submit to God’s greater power.
Calling out Allahu Akhbar was a way for the crowd to try to overcome the tragedy–which they were powerless to prevent–by drawing strength from their faith. To call out Allahu Akhbar meant–perhaps subconsciously–that they would not be defeated because God’s power is greater than what had just happened, greater than death or American bombs. I’d seen Palestinians react similarly to death many, many times. Allahu Akhbar! Today you killed me, but remember, God is greatest.
Some things about Iraq:
Last week the Iraqi government announced that at least 85,000 Iraqis were killed between 2004 and 2008; that doesn’t include deaths during and post-invasion, but does include those involved in the sectarian civial war. It also doesn’t include insurgents, though I’m not entirely certain how they distinguished insurgencts from militias from civilians.
Worth bumping from last month, Iraq is finding itself unable to meet the cost of its expenses, and not unrelatedly, the country is having trouble attracting investors to its oil industry. Most importantly: On Tuesday, the Iraqi government said it would need to borrow money from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to close a growing budget deficit. Oil revenues, which pay for more than 90 percent of Iraq’s expenses, are down sharply from last year because of flat production and lower international prices.
Nouri al-Maliki is visiting the White House today to speak with President Obama. In addition to the economic challenges, Iraq also faces an uncertain election timeline, as violence steadily continue.
But, because sometimes I leave the things that amuse me for last, Iraqi crime scene investigators receive top-notch training from US Army News:
This is the fourth class of five for these policemen, according to Howell. She said other classes designed to improve their skills as investigators taught putting together an evidence packet, working and preserving crime scenes, community policing and collecting evidence.
“Every police officer in the states is expected to know how to do these things,” said Howell.
That kind of made me smile this morning.
I can’t say I’m all that surprised that Silvio Burlesconi announced the withdrawal of a sixth of Italian troops from Afghanistan; I think Gary Schmitt over at the new Defence Studies blog pretty much covers all the important points.
Everyone’s talking about Missile Shields right now. Nathan Hodge gives some of the tech specs of what the program might look like. Danger Room is always a good source of acronyms if you’re running low. The DIME Blog’s Dennis Murphy talks about Sec. Gates and strategic communication:
And so the Secretary’s action closed a proverbial say-do gap and made inroads in the elusive battle of ideas. It was a first, but important step in the right direction in this ongoing and generational ideological struggle.
Frank Kaplan at Slate breaks down the decision to step away from the Eastern European program, and the NYT reports that NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen is encouraging the US, Europe, and Russia to link their defence shields.
Robert Burns (AP) offers an analysis of this move in US Missile Defence, which segues us nicely into–
But witnesses reported that demonstrators chanting anti-government slogans had taken complete control of Tehran’s expansive Seventh of Tir Square. Video posted to YouTube showed thousands of others holding up green ribbons and rallying peacefully in Tehran, Esfahan and Shiraz. Late in the morning came reports of tear gas being fired into crowds in the capital, but they could not be confirmed.
I’ll confess to being petty enough to enjoy the Iranian people not taking Ahmadinejad’s bullshit lying down.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan Thursday to press Kurdish leaders to compromise on the controversial issue of sharing Iraq’s oil wealth. Biden met with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Massoud Barzani, in the regional capital of Irbil.
The great unanswered question about NATO withdrawal from Iraq, in my opinion, is whether Kurdish autonomy will be tolerated.
The US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing called “Exploring Three Strategies on Afghanistan; video is available at that URL. I for one am going to spend part of my precious Saturday living the dream of watching Senate hearings in my pajamas.
The NYT continues coverage of the Afghani election:
The prospect of a runoff election is growing after President Hamid Karzai was awarded 54.6 percent of the votes in the much disputed presidential election last month. But even as American officials noted that the Afghan authorities had begun printing ballots for a second round of voting, these officials said they were worried that a runoff could not be held before Afghanistan’s fierce winter starts in November.
…Time to start talking about a Transitional Authority, folks.
On the plane ride eastward, I caught up on a couple newscasts of the Rachel Maddow show, which is by and large my favorite televised news program outside of The Daily Show and Bill Maher. It is possible that I lean somewhat to the left.
Maddow is a skilled interviewer, and I’m impressed that she not only scored an interview with Tom Ridge (on the occasion of his new book, The Test of Our Times) but kept him in his seat for forty minutes answering question after uncomfortable, pointedly polite question.
Tom Ridge has a pretty clear tell for when he’s saying something he doesn’t actually believe. He sniffs with the right side of his face. After every single answer, when he reversed on something he wrote in his book, or tried to maintain a position that was dated two years ago, he gave his little sniff. I’m not sure what I found more disheartening–the fact that he didn’t believe the words he was saying or the fact that he said them anyway.
The below clip, where Ridge maintains that even though WMD were false, invading Iraq to establish a democracy made that invasion worthwhile (and Rachel baldly refuting that) is perhaps the most difficult part of the interview to watch, yet also the most important. It’s worth tracking down the rest of the interview, which you can find at The Rachel Maddow Show website and searching for “ridge.”