Saturday, September 14, 2013

Andrew Bacevich on the war complex, pundits, Bush and Obama

Andrew Bacevich, a military officer from a family of military officers, who served in Vietnam and whose son, also an officer, died in Iraq, is a fine writer on the American war-complex. He focuses on the diseases that come from having the world's largest military (bigger than the next 15 countries combined) and using it, as Bush foolishly did and as Obama has foolishly contemplated or done in the surge, in Iraq, Afghanistan and perhaps (so far a near miss) Syria.

Bacevich points out militarism - and militarists (Hitchens, Brooks et al but a pretty widespread chorus in the commercial press)- is inconsistent with what may decently be asked of American soldiers.


We might all recognize, now, that American militarism and American "security policy" are out of control. A wiser policy and a diminished military (cut the military bases abroad 1280 by 2/3 and that will still leave 400, freeing more than enough money to pay for universal health coverage, to eliminate debt-slavery for college students, to restore food stamps and repair the 400 bridges in urban areas which are now dangerous; a wiser policy would also encourage a decent settlement of Israel with Palestine, "forgotten" amidst John Kerry's recent shouting for war...) could be consistent with restoring America's influence in the world. The promise of Obama when he came in has now been undercut dramatically. From rogue state with pretensions to "exceptionalism" as America now is - see here - to leader in the world for peace and moderation where possible (and it may be) - that is a long way up from here...


‘Breach of Trust,’ by Andrew J. Bacevich

Published: September 5, 2013

Thanks to the magic of American national security politics, a number of young men who grew up in Nepal have found their way west, over northern India and across the breadth of Pakistan, to work at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, destroying million-dollar trucks bought by American taxpayers. They wield blowtorches and wear fireproof suits in the crushing heat, and — according to reporting by Ernesto LondoƱo at The Washington Post — it takes about 12 hours to demolish each of the vehicles. The trucks need to be cut into pieces small enough to be fed into industrial metal shredders, which grind the parts down into tiny bits of scrap that are sold locally for a few cents per pound. In May, about 11 million pounds of this scrap were apparently sold; by now it is probably more. The contractors who buy it call it “gold dust.”



How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country
By Andrew J. Bacevich
238 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $26.

The reason it takes so much time and effort to break down the trucks is because they were designed to be indestructible. They are Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, which everyone just calls MRAPs. In the early years of the Iraq war, one brave soldier confronted the visiting defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, to ask why troops were salvaging scrap metal out of junkyards to bolt onto soft-skinned Humvees as “hillbilly armor.” By about 2007 we finally started supplying MRAPs to the battlefield.

Their prodigious armoring and smart V-shaped hulls were designed to deflect blasts from roadside bombs and more. If you have ever ridden in one, it feels roughly as if you’ve put a steering wheel and some seat belts inside a bank vault and taken it out for a spin. Those are the million-dollar vehicles that third-country contractors at Kandahar are now shredding, by the thousands, into gold dust for the Afghan scrap market.

When the drawdown is done and the Afghanistan war hits its scheduled end-date next December, the plan is for the Army to still be larger by 10,000 soldiers than it was on 9/11. What we are steaming toward, at the end of more than 12 years of continual hot warfare, is not so much cold warfare or even peace, but rather a kind of high idle, with the expectation of constant overseas military involvement, at some level, somewhere. Even with continued debate over the drawdown and the idiotic sequester, no one expects that we will stop spending more on defense than the next 15 countries combined.

America is, truly, exceptional in the scale of our military commitments; it is the defining context of our role among nations. In his abrasive, heartbreaking new book, “Breach of Trust: How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country,” Andrew J. Bacevich starts from the assumption that our modern militarism is unsustainable and unwise. He then proceeds to assign blame, mercilessly: to the public (for our consumerist apathy); to the Pentagon (for its “generals who had slept undisturbed back when Warsaw Pact commanders had ostensibly been planning to launch World War III” but who “now fretted nervously over the prospect of their budget taking a hit”); to the contractors (whose profiteering steals honor from the soldiers they serve alongside); and, naturally, to the politicians. Even Fenway Park and the Red Sox come in for blame, for the staging of a sailor’s homecoming at a July 4 game that left Bacevich all but retching over the “convenient mechanism for voiding obligation, . . . a made-to-order opportunity for conscience-easing.”
Bacevich saves particular vitriol for pro-war writers of both the right and left: Christopher Hitchens, the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen and the New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier all get filleted and neatly stacked in the corner, to make room for the unleashing of all hell on David Brooks for his commentary before, during and after the Iraq war — followed by what Bacevich sees as an unconscionable repeat of the same mistakes in the late phases of the war in Afghanistan. Bacevich’s scorching litany of what he sums up as “grotesque and contemptible irresponsibility” is a bracing indictment of my profession, and how no one suffers consequences for even the most humiliating failures in prediction and analysis, as long as those failures favor the use of military force. (I should mention here that Bacevich blurbed my own book, “Drift.”)

Bacevich is a retired colonel, a Vietnam combat veteran and a West Point graduate, but his book’s massacre of sacred cows does not spare the institution he served as a career officer for 23 years. He writes that the criticism voiced by retired officers against Secretary Rumsfeld in 2006 should not be seen as a “revolt of the generals” but rather as a means for those senior officers, “with striking alacrity,” to “let themselves off the hook” for the descent into chaos in Iraq that was as much a product of senior military officers’ own failings as it was the fault of civilian leadership. Writing of the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia in 1993, Bacevich derides “tagging civilian policy makers with the blame” as a way to render “that episode irrelevant except as a testament to the gallantry of American soldiers.”

When the journalist Michael Hastings died in Los Angeles in June at the age of 33, mainstream journalism did not afford his memory much respect. His widow, Elise Jordan, complained to The New York Times about the characterization of his life’s work in the paper’s short, to-the-point obituary. But the factors that made Hastings unlauded by the mainstream were what made him so good at his job. [his reporting in the Rolling Stone brought down the rogue General Stanley McCrystal, whose public statement in Paris for more troops in Afghanistan - breaching the dominance of civilians over the military, helped force the useless and destructive escalation there]. He was the opposite of an “access journalist.” Yes, he got access to powerful people, but then he used it, ruthlessly, not to repay the favor of having been granted that access, but to tell stories that powerful people did not want told. He was resented and distrusted — even in death, it seems — because of the slashing, pitiless nature of his good and important work.

Bacevich does not write crisply and with snark the way Hastings did. In his late 60s, he isn’t a daring, dashing, liberal magazine journalist; he’s a crusty conservative Catholic professor who now teaches at Boston University. But he is cut from the same cloth. He will never be mainstream. When he writes about America and our military, though, he does it in a manner that makes you wonder how anyone covering politics can write about anything else.

He is not out to make friends. And he won’t. His criticism of the Obama administration, and of the public, and of the military, and especially of what he calls the “Israelification” of American defense strategy probably push him beyond the bounds of acceptable discussion in this most sclerotic and cramped of all policy fields. He closes his book with the accusation that those who disagree with his thesis “cannot be said to love their country. Nor can they be said to care about the well-being of those sent to fight on the country’s behalf.” Worse, the closest thing to a hero in Bacevich’s book is a senior Army officer who killed himself in Iraq in protest of his perceived inability to serve honorably in the war. Bleak stuff.

But plainly, Bacevich doesn’t want to get invited to the cocktail parties. The visceral depth of his disgust for war itself — “an unvarnished evil” — is matched only by his insistence that we stop expressing corporate-manufactured, guilt-assuaging “support” for the troops, and instead that we actually love them in the most elemental way: by protecting them from harm. He is the opposite of the Beltway chicken hawk, who proves his seriousness on national security by sending (other) Americans into every conceivable fight.

Bacevich laments that the military never genuinely considered a post-cold-war approach to national security based on “modesty and caution,” an approach that he says “might better serve the nation that the generals had sworn to defend while preserving from unnecessary harm the soldiers they professed to love.”

In the middle of an extended discussion about the changing nature of the armed forces and the integration of female troops into combat roles, Bacevich drops this line: “Over all, they performed admirably, even if sometimes their very best efforts were not good enough. When my own son was killed in Iraq, one of the medics attending him was a woman.”
This is the only mention in “Breach of Trust” that First Lt. Andrew John Bace­vich was killed in combat north of Baghdad in 2007. But it is hard not to hear its echo, throughout: “Now that the war in Iraq has ended . . . Americans might ponder the question of what the loss of several thousand soldiers there signifies. I have grappled with that question myself, not altogether successfully.”

What is successful is the persuasiveness of Bacevich’s argument — through this and his last several books — that we try to use the United States military against problems that have no military solution, and in ways that exacerbate our inclination to overuse it in the first place. In “Breach of Trust,” with prose that is occasionally clunky but always unsparing, Bacevich dismantles the warrior myth we civilians and politicians so enjoy worshiping from afar, and replaces that idol with flesh and blood, vulnerable humans, who deserve better than the profligate, wasteful way in which we treat them.

Rachel Maddow hosts her own program on MSNBC. She is the author of “Drift: The ­Unmooring of American Military Power.”


Guy Montag said...

“The visceral depth of his disgust for war itself … is matched only by his insistence that we stop expressing corporate-manufactured, guilt-assuaging “support” for the troops … [e.g.] staging of a sailor’s homecoming at a July 4 game that left Bacevich all but retching over the “convenient mechanism for voiding obligation . . . a made-to-order opportunity for conscience-easing.”

. . .

Last week, ASU announced their new “Tillman Tunnel.” But, ASU (among others) has turned Pat Tillman into a lifeless patriotic icon (# 42) of “heroic sacrifice”, instead of celebrating his complex reality (e.g. the man who told a fellow Ranger in Iraq that “This war is so ----ing illegal!). They’ve enshrined Pat Tillman as an icon, while the man has fallen by the wayside.

We should remember the “… armed forces is not all about glory. It's about secrets, lies and death, too” [for details, see the December 2012 post, “The [Missing] Pat Tillman Legacy” at the Feral Firefighter blog].

We should honor Pat Tillman’s legacy by honoring the man, not the myth. The iconoclast, not the icon. As his mother said in 2004, “Pat would have wanted to be remembered as an individual, not as a stock figure or political prop. Pat was a real hero, not what they used him as.”

Portraying Pat’s Legacy as a patriotic fable (omitting that the truth that his friendly-death was covered up by the Pentagon to use him as a propaganda tool) dishonors his memory. Pat lived his life with honesty and integrity. I believe the least ASU could do in return is to portray Pat’s Legacy with the same honesty and integrity with which he lived his life.

Guy Montag said...

“When the journalist Michael Hastings died in Los Angeles in June at the age of 33, mainstream journalism did not afford his memory much respect. His widow, Elise Jordan, complained to The New York Times about the characterization of his life’s work in the paper’s short, to-the-point obituary.”

. . .

Elise Jordan wrote: “If a reporter at the Times actually would read and properly analyze the Pentagon report, they would find exactly the opposite [ of an inaccurate story] … the mischaracterization in the obituary reflects a longstanding – and ongoing – misrepresentation of the facts in and surrounding this story by the Times … I personally transcribed and have all the tape recordings of Michael’s interviews during his time with [Gen. Stanley] McChrystal and his staff. I can personally verify that some of the most damning comments were made by McChrystal himself, and many others made by his aides in his presence were greeted with his enthusiastic approval.”

However, the NYT obituaries editor Bill McDonald refused to make corrections to Hasting’s obituary. He claimed that “it’s not The Times that is questioning the article’s accuracy; it was the Defense Department. We're simply reporting what it publicly said” … [“as we must, if we’re going to write an honest obit about him.”] Really? His response brings to mind a quote from the film “V for Vendetta” in which a TV broadcaster said, "our job is to report the news, not fabricate it; that's the government's job.”

And, in her take on the obit, NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said that “the obituary…is not factually inaccurate, as far as I can tell” …” What exactly does that double-negative mean? Apparently, she agrees with the obituary editor that it's OK to simply repeat the Pentagon's "lies borne out by facts, if not the truth"?

In a 2012 Alternet interview Michael Hastings was asked: “are there individual reporters whom you want to call out publicly for their sort of following the Pentagon line and not doing their job?” He replied, “Yeah. I saw a pretty egregious example with the New York Times Pentagon correspondent [Thom Shanker] who literally just published the Pentagon spokesperson's anonymous quotes when he was reporting on my stories … he's got the official line from the Pentagon.”

Shanker wrote the April 2011 NYT piece that claimed a Pentagon investigation had “found no proof of wrongdoing” by Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the events portrayed in Hasting’s 2010 “Rolling Stone” profile.

It’s worth noting that three years previously, Shanker had also written written a May 2009 NYT piece that “cleared” Gen. McChrystal’s of wrong-doing in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s 2004 friendly-fire death in Afghanistan [see the post “More Lies Borne Out by Facts, If Not the Truth” at the Feral Firefighter blog].

I didn’t come away from my personal experience with Thom Shanker with any confidence in our “watchdog” press. As Hastings said, “they call it the Pentagon Press Corps, right? And you sort of think, oh, well it means the people who kind of watch over the Pentagon and perform the media's watchdog function, but no, it's an extension of the Pentagon.”

Alan Gilbert said...

Bravo, Guy...

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