I served for twenty years in the Air Force. Service in the military involves sacrifice even when combat isn’t involved, but it also conveys privileges and provides opportunity, or at least it did so for me. I can’t recall people thanking me for my service when I wore a uniform, nor did I expect them to. I just saw myself as doing my duty to the best of my ability, and therefore deserving of no special thanks or commendation.
At TomDispatch.com, former Army Ranger Rory Fanning talks about his discomfort with the thank you parade directed at “our” troops. His honest words are a reminder that a thank you repeated again and again loses its meaning, especially when it’s appropriated by megastars and sponsored by corporations. Think, for example, of that Budweiser ad during last year’s Super Bowl that featured a returning LT. We see him greeting his pretty wife at the airport, then we cut to a surprise parade in his honor down Main Street USA complete with the Budweiser Clydesdales and teary-eyed veterans. The sentiment, however honest to many of the celebrants, is cheapened as heart strings are tugged to sell beer. Or consider those Bank of America ads for wounded warriors airing during this year’s World Series. Images of wounded troops continuing to triumph in spite of war injuries are appropriated to associate a huge bank with the sacrifices endured by ordinary GIs. Again, however well-intentioned such ads may be, heart strings are being tugged by a bank with a dubious record of sympathy for the little guy and gal.
As retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich has noted, elaborate thank you ceremonies can be a form of cheap grace in which Americans clap themselves on the back in spasms of feel-good celebratory pageantry. Some of these celebrations are so over the top in their flag-waving thanks that you just can’t help having darker thoughts. Is this a recruitment video? Are we even meant to think at all or just gush with pride? Are we simply meant to bask in the reflected glow of the medals on the chests of our young men and women in uniform?
We thank our troops for complicated reasons as well as simple ones. The simple are easy to write about: genuine thanks, from one person to another, no megastars, no corporations. Just a handshake and a nod or a few kind words. I’ve had people thank me in that way since I retired from service, and I appreciate it and respond graciously.
But the complicated reasons – well, these reasons are not as easy to write about. The guilt of those who avoid service. Pro forma thanks. The thanks that comes from people who believe their involvement with the military both starts and ends there. The related idea that if one thanks the troops, one has done one’s bit for the war (whichever war our president says we’re fighting today).
More disturbingly is the thanks that allows us all to deny the reality of America’s wars (the reality of all wars): the sordidness of wartime bungling and mismanagement and violence and murder. Often the latter is drowned out by the bugle calls of thanks! thanks! thanks! coming from the cheering multitudes.
My father taught me “an empty barrel makes the most noise.” I think that’s true even when the noise is presented as thanks to our troops.
In my latest article for TomDispatch, I examine why the Iraqi security forces that the U.S. trained and equipped at a cost of $25 billion performed so poorly when attacked by ISIS in June. Read on! And be sure to check out other articles at TomDispatch, a contrarian site edited by the inestimable (and indefatigable) Tom Engelhardt.
In June, tens of thousands of Iraqi Security Forces in Nineveh province north of Baghdad collapsed in the face of attacks from the militants of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), abandoning four major cities to that extremist movement. The collapse drew much notice in our media, but not much in the way of sustained analysis of the American role in it. To put it bluntly, when confronting IS and its band of lightly armed irregulars, a reputedly professional military, American-trained and -armed, discarded its weapons and equipment, cast its uniforms aside, and melted back into the populace. What this behavior couldn’t have made clearer was that U.S. efforts to create a new Iraqi army, much-touted and funded to the tune of $25 billion over the 10 years of the American occupation ($60 billion if you include other reconstruction costs), had failed miserably.
Though reasonable analyses of the factors behind that collapse exist, an investigation of why U.S. efforts to create a viable Iraqi army (and, by extension, viable security forces in Afghanistan) cratered so badly are lacking. To understand what really happened, a little history lesson is in order. You’d need to start in May 2003 with the decision of L. Paul Bremer III, America’s proconsul in occupied Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), to disband the battle-hardened Iraqi military. The Bush administration considered it far too tainted by Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party to be a trustworthy force.
Instead, Bremer and his team vowed to create a new Iraqi military from scratch. According to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks in his bestselling book Fiasco, that force was initially conceived as a small constabulary of 30,000-40,000 men (with no air force at all, or rather with the U.S. Air Force for backing in a country U.S. officials expected to garrison for decades). Its main job would be to secure the country’s borders without posing a threat to Iraq’s neighbors or, it should be added, to U.S. interests.
Bremer’s decision essentially threw 400,000 Iraqis with military training, including a full officer corps, out onto the streets of its cities, jobless. It was a formula for creating an insurgency. Humiliated and embittered, some of those men would later join various resistance groups operating against the American military. More than a few of them later found their way into the ranks of ISIS, including at the highest levels of leadership. (The most notorious of these is Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former general in Saddam’s army who was featured as the King of Clubs in the Bush administration’s deck of cards of Iraq’s most wanted figures. Al-Douri is now reportedlyhelping to coordinate IS attacks.)
IS has fought with considerable effectiveness, quickly turning captured American and Syrian weaponry, including artillery pieces, Humvees, and even a helicopter, on their enemies. Despite years of work by U.S. military advisers and all those billions of dollars invested in training and equipment, the Iraqi army has not fought well, or often at all. Nor, it seems, will it be ready to do so in the immediate future. Retired Marine Corps General John R. Allen, who played a key role in organizing, arming, and paying off Sunni tribal groups in Iraq the last time around during the “Anbar Awakening,” and who has been charged by President Obama with “coordinating” the latest American-led coalition to save Iraq, has alreadygone on record on the subject. By his calculations, even with extensive U.S. air support and fresh infusions of American advisers and equipment, it will take up to a year before that army is capable of launching a campaign to retake Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
What went wrong? The U.S. Army believes in putting the “bottom line up front,” so much so that they have even turned the phrase into an acronym: BLUF. The bottom line here is that, when it comes to military effectiveness, what ultimately matters is whether an army — any army — possesses spirit. Call it fire in the belly, a willingness to take the fight to the enemy. The Islamic State’s militants, at least for the moment, clearly have that will; Iraqi security forces, painstakingly trained and lavishly underwritten by the U.S. government, do not.
This represents a failure of the first order. So here’s the $60 billion question: Why did such sustained U.S. efforts bear such bitter fruit? The simple answer: for a foreign occupying force to create a unified and effective army from a disunified and disaffected populace was (and remains) a fool’s errand. In reality, U.S. intervention, now as then, will serve only to aggravate that disunity, no matter what new Anbar Awakenings are attempted.
In the military, it’s called an “after action report” or a “hotwash” — a review, that is, of what went wrong and what can be learned, so the same mistakes are not repeated. When it comes to America’s Iraq training mission, four lessons should top any “hotwash” list:
1. Military training, no matter how intensive, and weaponry, no matter how sophisticated and powerful, is no substitute for belief in a cause. Such belief nurtures cohesion and feeds fighting spirit. ISIS has fought with conviction. The expensively trained and equipped Iraqi army hasn’t. The latter lacks a compelling cause held in common. This is not to suggest that ISIS has a cause that’s pure or just. Indeed, it appears to be a complex mélange of religious fundamentalism, sectarian revenge, political ambition, and old-fashioned opportunism (including loot, plain and simple). But so far the combination has proven compelling to its fighters, while Iraq’s security forces appear centered on little more than self-preservation.
2. Military training alone cannot produce loyalty to a dysfunctional and disunified government incapable of running the country effectively, which is a reasonable description of Iraq’s sectarian Shia government. So it should be no surprise that, as Andrew Bacevich has noted, its security forces won’t obey orders. Unlike Tennyson’s six hundred, the Iraqi army is unready to ride into any valley of death on orders from Baghdad. Of course, this problem might be solved through the formation of an Iraqi government that fairly represented all major parties in Iraqi society, not just the Shia majority. But that seems an unlikely possibility at this point. In the meantime, one solution the situation doesn’t call for is more U.S. airpower, weapons, advisers, and training. That’s already been tried — and it failed.
3. A corrupt and kleptocratic government produces a corrupt and kleptocratic army. On Transparency International’s 2013 corruption perceptions index, Iraq came in 171 among the 177 countries surveyed. And that rot can’t be overcome by American “can-do” military training, then or now. In fact, Iraqi security forces mirror the kleptocracy they serve, often existing largely on paper. For example, prior to the June ISIS offensive, as Patrick Cockburn has noted, the security forces in and around Mosul had a paper strength of 60,000, but only an estimated 20,000 of them were actually available for battle. As Cockburn writes, “A common source of additional income for officers is for soldiers to kickback half their salaries to their officers in return for staying at home or doing another job.”
When he asked a recently retired general why the country’s military pancaked in June, Cockburn got this answer:
“‘Corruption! Corruption! Corruption!’ [the general] replied: pervasive corruption had turned the [Iraqi] army into a racket and an investment opportunity in which every officer had to pay for his post. He said the opportunity to make big money in the Iraqi army goes back to the U.S. advisers who set it up ten years ago. The Americans insisted that food and other supplies should be outsourced to private businesses: this meant immense opportunities for graft. A battalion might have a nominal strength of six hundred men and its commanding officer would receive money from the budget to pay for their food, but in fact there were only two hundred men in the barracks so he could pocket the difference. In some cases there were ‘ghost battalions’ that didn’t exist at all but were being paid for just the same.”
Only in fantasies like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings do ghost battalions make a difference on the battlefield. Systemic graft and rampant corruption can be papered over in parliament, but not when bullets fly and blood flows, as events in June proved.
Such corruption is hardly new (or news). Back in 2005, in his article “Why Iraq Has No Army,” James Fallows noted that Iraqi weapons contracts valued at $1.3 billion shed $500 million for “payoffs, kickbacks, and fraud.” In the same year, Eliot Weinberger, writing in the London Review of Books, cited Sabah Hadum, spokesman for the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, as admitting, “We are paying about 135,000 [troop salaries], but that does not necessarily mean that 135,000 are actually working.” Already Weinberger saw evidence of up to 50,000 “ghost soldiers” or “invented names whose pay is collected by [Iraqi] officers or bureaucrats.” U.S. government hype to the contrary, little changed between initial training efforts in 2005 and the present day, as Kelley Vlahos noted recently in her article “The Iraqi Army Never Was.”
4. American ignorance of Iraqi culture and a widespread contempt for Iraqis compromised training results. Such ignorance was reflected in the commonplace use by U.S. troops of the term “hajji,” an honorific reserved for those who have made the journey (or hajj) to Mecca, for any Iraqi male; contempt in the use of terms such as “raghead,” in indiscriminate firing and overly aggressive behavior, and most notoriously in the events at Abu Ghraib prison. As Douglas Macgregor, a retired Army colonel, noted in December 2004, American generals and politicians “did not think through the consequences of compelling American soldiers with no knowledge of Arabic or Arab culture to implement intrusive measures inside an Islamic society. We arrested people in front of their families, dragging them away in handcuffs with bags over their heads, and then provided no information to the families of those we incarcerated. In the end, our soldiers killed, maimed, and incarcerated thousands of Arabs, 90 percent of whom were not the enemy. But they are now.”
Sharing that contempt was Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who chose a metaphor of parent and child, teacher and neophyte, to describe the “progress” of the occupation. He spoke condescendingly of the need to take the “training wheels” off the Iraqi bike of state and let Iraqis pedal for themselves. A decade later, General Allen exhibited a similarly paternalistic attitude in an article he wrote calling for the destruction of the Islamic State. For him, the people of Iraq are “poor benighted” souls, who can nonetheless serve American power adequately as “boots on the ground.” In translation that means they can soak up bullets and become casualties, while the U.S. provides advice and air support. In the general’s vision — which had déjà vu all over again scrawled across it — U.S. advisers were to “orchestrate” future attacks on IS, while Iraq’s security forces learned how to obediently follow their American conductors.
The commonplace mixture of smugness and paternalism Allen revealedhardly bodes well for future operations against the Islamic State.
The grim wisdom of Private Hudson in the movie Aliens comes to mind: “Let’s just bug out and call it ‘even,’ OK? What are we talking about this for?”
Unfortunately, no one in the Obama administration is entertaining such sentiments at the moment, despite the fact that ISIS does not actually represent a clear and present danger to the “homeland.” The bugging-out option has, in fact, been tested and proven in Vietnam. After 1973, the U.S. finally walked away from its disastrous war there and, in 1975, South Vietnam fell to the enemy. It was messy and represented a genuine defeat — but no less so than if the U.S. military had intervened yet again in 1975 to “save” its South Vietnamese allies with more weaponry, money, troops, and carpet bombing. Since then, the Vietnamese have somehow managed to chart their own course without any of the above and almost 40 years later, the U.S. and Vietnam find themselves informally allied against China.
To many Americans, IS appears to be the latest Islamic version of the old communist threat — a bad crew who must be hunted down and destroyed. This, of course, is something the U.S. tried in the region first against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and again in 2003, then against various Sunni and Shiite insurgencies, and now against the Islamic State. Given the paradigm — a threat to our way of life — pulling out is never an option, even though it would remove the “American Satan” card from the IS propaganda deck. To pull out means to leave behind much bloodshed and many grim acts. Harsh, I know, but is it any harsher than incessant American-led bombing, the commitment of more American “advisers” and money and weapons, and yet more American generals posturing as the conductors of Iraqi affairs? With, of course, the usual results.
One thing is clear: the foreign armies that the U.S. invests so much money, time, and effort in training and equipping don’t act as if America’s enemies are their enemies. Contrary to the behavior predicted by Donald Rumsfeld, when the U.S. removes those “training wheels” from its client militaries, they pedal furiously (when they pedal at all) in directions wholly unexpected by, and often undesirable to, their American paymasters.
And if that’s not a clear sign of the failure of U.S. foreign policy, I don’t know what is.
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. And he discovered a new world. New to him, of course, and his fellow Europeans, not to the indigenous peoples already living there. Yes, Columbus gets too much credit for that “discovery.” Yes, he and his fellow Europeans were incredibly ambitious, often vicious, and not overly interested in the fate of indigenous people. The three Gs of overseas exploration usually applied — God, Glory, and Gold, often with greed for gold and other valuables taking first priority over spreading the Gospel or winning a reputation (titles and other personal honors).
But are we truly showing sensitivity to Native Americans by changing the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as the Seattle city council did earlier this week?
For many years, I taught world history. The key event that touched off the modern world was the Columbian Exchange, the reconnection of the Old and New Worlds and the transfer/diffusion of peoples, animals and plants, products, ideas, and so on between those two worlds. Of course, this transfer greatly favored Europeans and utterly devastated indigenous people, especially since Europeans brought all of their “old world” diseases with them, such as smallpox, which ripped through Native American populations that lacked immunity to those diseases. As indigenous people experienced mass death, mainly due to these diseases, Europeans sought another labor source they could exploit for their plantations and mines and farms in the New World, tapping into a preexisting trade in African peoples. The rapid expansion in exportation of African slaves (more than 12 million being shipped to the New World between Columbus’s voyage and the end of the slave trade in the 19th century) is another ghastly and haunting feature of the Columbian Exchange.
Columbus’s voyage changed the world, usually for the worse for the indigenous peoples of America as well as the peoples of Africa. But are we truly showing cultural sensitivity and enlightenment by renaming Columbus Day in honor of indigenous people? By rectifying a name, are we really doing anything to rectify a wrong?
Long ago in the United States, Columbus Day ceased being connected in any solid way to Columbus. It morphed into a celebration by Italian-Americans of their heritage while much of the rest of America went shopping (at least that’s what we’re told to do by incessant ads and by the media). Dismissing the celebratory traditions of Italian-Americans in the name of cultural sensitivity for indigenous peoples seems more than a little contradictory.
Want to show sensitivity to indigenous peoples? Give them back their land. Treat them with dignity and respect — you know, like they’re human beings just like you and me.
Vigorously patting yourself on the back for your sensitivity in inaugurating an “indigenous peoples’ day” — well, it just seems like another flabby exercise in cheap grace that requires no real sacrifice — and no real penance as well.
“Global reach, global power”: that was one motto of the U.S. Air Force when I was on active duty. “A global force for good”: that’s the new motto in advertisements for the U.S. Navy. Note that word: global. For the ambitions of the U.S. government and military transcend national security: they truly are global ambitions of dominance, which is exactly what Tom Engelhardt documents so fully in his new book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).
Engelhardt powerfully documents the growing power of a “shadow government,” a government shrouded in secrecy (and which routinely classifies 100 million documents per year), a government that relentlessly prosecutes anyone who tries to lift this shroud of secrecy, a government that continues to grow in size and power despite, or rather because of, its failures. It’s a government of intelligence agencies and Special Forces and drone strikes and private military contractors and a 1000+ military bases overseas and carrier task forces and rendition/black sites, a government that divides the globe into major military commands like CENTCOM and AFRICOM and NORTHCOM, a government that can’t think of the “homeland” without adding the word “security” and lots of guns and tanks.
This week, Engelhardt introduced his new book at TomDispatch with the following shocker:
“What are the odds? You put about $68 billion annually into a maze of 17 major intelligence outfits. You build them glorious headquarters. You create a global surveillance state for the ages. You listen in on your citizenry and gather their communications in staggering quantities. Your employees even morph into avatars and enter video-game landscapes, lest any Americans betray a penchant for evil deeds while in entertainment mode. You collect information on visits to porn sites just in case, one day, blackmail might be useful. You pass around naked photos of them just for… well, the salacious hell of it. Your employees even use aspects of the system you’ve created to stalk former lovers and, within your arcane world, that act of ‘spycraft’ gains its own name: LOVEINT.
“You listen in on foreign leaders and politicians across the planet. You bring on board hundreds of thousands of crony corporate employees, creating the sinews of an intelligence-corporate complex of the first order. You break into the ‘backdoors’ of the data centers of major Internet outfits to collect user accounts. You create new outfits within outfits, including an ever-expanding secret military and intelligence crew embedded inside the military itself (and not counted among those 17 agencies). Your leaders lie to Congress and the American people without, as far as we can tell, a flicker of self-doubt. Your acts are subject to secret courts, which only hear your versions of events and regularly rubberstamp them — and whose judgments and substantial body of lawmaking are far too secret for Americans to know about.”
And yet despite all the trillions invested in America’s global security state, we’re no safer today than we were before 9/11. Indeed, we’re less safe in a thoroughly militarized world in which Americans increasingly find their rights being abridged in the false name of security.
A painful irony is that however much they fail (like in their recent failure to predict the rise of ISIS), America’s global security state continues to grow. As Engelhardt notes:
“Keep in mind that the twenty-first-century version of intelligence began amid a catastrophic failure: much crucial information about the 9/11 hijackers and hijackings was ignored or simply lost in the labyrinth. That failure, of course, led to one of the great intelligence expansions, or even explosions, in history. (And mind you, no figure in authority in the national security world was axed, demoted, or penalized in any way for 9/11 and a number of them were later given awards and promoted.) However they may fail, when it comes to their budgets, their power, their reach, their secrecy, their careers, and their staying power, they have succeeded impressively.
“You could, of course, say that the world is simply a hard place to know and the future, with its eternal surprises, is one territory that no country, no military, no set of intelligence agencies can occupy, no matter how much they invest in doing so. An inability to predict the lay of tomorrow’s land may, in a way, be par for the course. If so, however, remind me: Why exactly are we supporting 17 versions of intelligence gathering to the tune of at least $68 billion a year?”
Good question. The more they fail, the more money and power they get.
In some ways, the U.S. global security state is like a Rube Goldberg machine, absurdly and immensely complicated, with many points of potential failure. Then again, Rube Goldberg might not be the best metaphor, since his devices actually worked. They accomplished a simple task in an absurdly and often amusingly complex way. But there’s nothing amusing about the U.S. global security machine, which can’t win its wars even as it succeeds in perpetuating its own growth.
What the global security state resembles most is a golem, a soulless monster of immense power. The government summoned it in the name of smiting enemies, but it has now grown so powerful that no one fully controls it. It continues to intervene powerfully and destructively, with wildly unpredictable results. Yet its creators are so simultaneously frightened of it and in awe of it that they continue to feed the beast while sending it forth to do battle.
The shadow government as golem: a shambling monster seeking vengeance but lacking a soul and without a hint of compassion. It’s a terrifying idea. After reading Engelhardt’s new book, you should indeed be terrified of what is lurking in the immense and menacing shadow cast by the global security state.
Americans tend to fear death. It makes us uncomfortable. Yet death is inevitable. Its inevitability should teach us to revel in the richness of the here and now. It should also teach us the foolishness of undue pride.
All is vanity, the Bible teaches. Death reminds us of this — that human vanity, as unavoidable as it may be, is ultimately shallow. There are riches out there that we should seek away from the glaring and garish light of vanity. Riches that give deeper meaning to life.
Of all cultures in the world, I wonder if there’s another that ignores or denies death as much as American culture. We’re the culture of new beginnings, fresh starts, reinvention, and also of the perpetual now, of youth, of defying or denying death through face lifts, cosmetics, adrenalin-driven adventures, and so on. Technology and consumerism also provide distractions. After all, how can I be nearing the end if I have the latest iPhone or iPad or if I’m wearing the latest hip fashions?
Our funeral homes seek to deny death with open casket rituals in which the dead person is made up to look alive. Paul Fussell skewered this cultural tendency in his book, Class. We use euphemisms like “passed away” or “passed on” for “died”; the descriptive term of “undertaker” has morphed into “funeral home director.” Our religions stress life after death, not death itself.
We even deny that our wars produce death. Think of the Bush/Cheney Administration, which refused to show photographs of flag-draped coffins of American troops, ostensibly for “privacy” reasons but mainly to minimize the deadly costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Indeed, we don’t talk of troops dying in combat; we talk instead of troops “paying the ultimate price” or “making the ultimate sacrifice.”)
In minimizing the cost of war to its troops, the U.S. government and media also seek to deny the reality of death to the enemy. War coverage in the media is often stock footage showing drones or aircraft firing missiles, enhanced by graphics and music. You might see an enemy building or truck blowing up, but you’ll never see dead bodies. Too disturbing, even though violent gun play and bleeding corpses are routinely shown in American crime shows and movies as entertainment.
In the first Iraq war (Desert Storm) in 1991, the photographer Kenneth Jarecke caught a powerful image of a dead Iraqi soldier burnt alive in his truck on the infamous “highway of death.” Jarecke believed his photo would change America’s vision of the war, which in the U.S. media had been staged like a Hollywood production, neat and sanitary and clean. But no U.S. media outlet would publish the image. It was relegated to overseas publications.
What price do we pay as a people by ignoring death? We lack a certain depth and maturity; put differently, we are callous and shallow. Death has little meaning to us, especially the deaths of those in other lands. For in seeking to deny the inevitability of our own deaths, how can we possibly recognize and process the death of others?
A death-denying culture that rains death on others using drones named “Predator” and “Reaper”; a culture that finds images of war dead too disturbing even as its TVs and movies and videos are saturated by bloody murders. What are we to make of this?
The most powerful speech I’ve seen in any movie is that of Chief Dan George in “Little Big Man.” In trying to make sense of the White Man’s war on Native Americans, Chief Dan George’s character, Old Lodge Skins, suggests that the White Man kills because he believes everything is dead already. Lacking a moral center, the White Man has no sense of, or appreciation for, the sanctity of life.
Do we deny death because in some sense we are already dead? Dead to the richness and sanctity of life?
Random thoughts, as promised. But I hope they stimulate thought. What say you, readers?