What is it good for?

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

I've got a new Think Again column, "The Role of Public Opinion in Iraq and Vietnam," here, and a new Nation column, "Can We Talk, cont'd," which is about (again) not being able to talk about the Middle East. I see also that my friends at Fora.tv have posted a Creative Coalition panel I was on in Washington a month or so ago with Joe Scarborough, Margaret Carlson, John Zogby, John Fund, and a few celebrities, moderated by Lawrence O'Donnell, here.

Now, let's turn things over to the Lt. Col ...

Hello, Altercators. LTC Bob Bateman again. No politics today, just some observations about a nation at war. Sort of.

Corridor Three

10:30 hours (local EST), Friday, 11 May 2007: Third Corridor, Second Floor, The Pentagon:

It is 110 yards from the "E" ring to the "A" ring of the Pentagon. This section of the Pentagon is newly renovated; the floors shine, the hallway is broad, and the lighting is bright. At this instant the entire length of the corridor is packed with officers, a few sergeants and some civilians, all crammed tightly three and four deep against the walls. There are thousands here. This hallway, more than any other, is the "Army" hallway. The G3 offices line one side, G2 the other, G8 is around the corner. All Army. Moderate conversations flow in a low buzz. Friends who may not have seen each other for a few weeks, or a few years, spot each other, cross the way and renew. Everyone shifts to ensure an open path remains down the center. The air conditioning system was not designed for this press of bodies in this area. The temperature is rising already. Nobody cares.

10:36 hours (local EST):

The clapping starts at the E-Ring. That is the outermost of the five rings of the Pentagon and it is closest to the entrance to the building. This clapping is low, sustained, hearty. It is an applause with a deep emotion behind it as it moves forward in a wave down the length of the hallway. A steady rolling wave of sound it is, moving at the pace of the soldier in the wheelchair who marks the forward edge with his presence. He is the first. He is missing the greater part of one leg, and some of his wounds are still suppurating.

By his age I expect that he is a private, or perhaps a private first class. Captains, majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels meet his gaze and nod as they applaud, soldier to soldier. Three years ago when I described one of these events on Altercation, those lining the hallways were somewhat different. The applause a little wilder, perhaps in private guilt for not having shared in the burden ... yet. Now almost everyone lining the hallway is, like the man in the wheelchair, also a combat veteran. This steadies the applause, but I think deepens the sentiment. We have all been there now. The soldier's chair is pushed by, I believe, a full colonel. Behind him, and stretching the length from E to A, come more of his peers, each private, corporal or sergeant assisted as need be by a field grade officer.

10:50 hours (local EST):

Twenty-four minutes of steady applause. My hands hurt, and I laugh to myself at how stupid that sounds in my own head. "My hands hurt." Christ. Shut up and clap.

For twenty-four minutes, soldier after soldier has come down this hallway -- 20, 25, 30. Fifty-three legs come with them, and perhaps only 52 hands or arms, but down this hall came 30 solid hearts. They pass down this corridor of officers and applause, and then meet for a private lunch, at which they are the guests of honor, hosted by the generals.

Some are wheeled along. Some insist upon getting out of their chairs, to march as best they can with their chin held up, down this hallway, through this most unique audience. Some are catching handshakes and smiling like a politician at a Fourth of July parade. More than a couple of them seem amazed and are smiling shyly. There are families with them as well: the 18-year-old war-bride pushing her 19-year-old husband's wheelchair and not quite understanding why her husband is so affected by this, the boy she grew up with, now a man, who had never shed a tear is crying; the older immigrant Latino parents who have, perhaps more than their wounded mid-20s son, an appreciation for the emotion given on their son's behalf. No man in that hallway, walking or clapping, is ashamed by the silent tears on more than a few cheeks. An Airborne Ranger wipes his eyes only to better see. A couple of the officers in this crowd have themselves been a part of this parade in the past. These are our men, broken in body they may be, but they are our brothers, and we welcome them home.

This parade has gone on, every single Friday, all year long, for more than four years.

Last week I noted the disturbing reports about the ethics of Americans in Iraq and drew parallels to the increase in cheating in American schools. I was light on the commentary, and will remain so to some degree. But what has me stewing recently is Haditha.

I should note now that I am a long time admirer of individual Marines, I have been a member of the Marine Corps Association for more than a decade (though my membership has lapsed now), I write for Marine Corps Gazette upon occasion, and I believe that the Marines are necessary and useful. That being said, I am now worried for the future of the Corps.

The New York Times, by the way, deserves kudos for assigning reporter Paul von Zielbauer to this series. I have no idea who this guy is, and so far as I know, never read any of his work before this. But he is covering the trials of the officers in the Haditha killings, and doing so as well as anyone I have ever seen. His stories are accurate, non-sensationalistic, but hard-hitting on several levels at the same time.

One final note on Haditha as a phenomena, before I get cranked up: Haditha, or more accurately the trials of the Marine officers up the chain from the events in Haditha, is something that you will not see anywhere else. It will be forever a part of our national shame that things like Haditha (and Mahmudihyah, and Abu Ghraib, etc) occur in war. As Eric noted some time ago, it does not seem possible to wage a "perfect" war (as oxymoronic as that construction is) in which nothing like this ever happens. But the fact that we are having court martials matters. The fact that we are trying, in public, officers in the chain of command. The fact that reporters are allowed to cover the trial, and the reports are appearing in our largest papers. All of this matters, and does give me hope. In more ways than may be apparent. It matters.

Now, for the disturbing stuff: The first of these stories, which you can read here, is in my opinion a sign of internal moral rot among people like me: field grade infantry officers. Majors, lieutenant colonels, and full colonels are collectively called "field grade" officers. We are supposed to be more experienced, wiser, less likely to lose our heads and more likely to listen with openness. That is what age and experience, and perhaps some moderate wisdom, is supposed to give you. But what this story tells me about is a peer of mine, another LTC (albeit a Marine) was so blinded by his love of his unit that he blew off his two senior officers and the evidence that, yes, some of his men may have killed innocents, and refused to investigate. This does not speak well for the culture of the Marine Corps, or their future.

But it was actually the next story that really made me worry for the Corps, because this one involves the general in command. You see, by the time you make full Colonel, you are in theory the epitome of everything that service values. You are among the top 1 percent of that service. If you make general, this is even more the case. If this is true, then as I said, I fear for the Corps. When you read the story, perhaps you may see why. A few highlights:

The general who led a division in charge of the marines who killed 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005 testified Thursday that he was kept from weighing accusations that the killings were illegal because his subordinate officers withheld information for nearly three months.

[...]

[Major] General [Richard A.] Huck said he had not learned until February 2006 about inquiries into the deaths by Time magazine because his own chief of staff and regimental commander kept him in the dark."

These lines indict the colonels below Major General Huck. I leave it to you to read these next selections and decide what they mean.

General Huck said he had made a list of all the officers and enlisted men who could have reported the Haditha killings as a possible law of war violation but did not. They ranged from senior officers to sergeants and radio operators who heard reports from the field that day.

...and later in the story:

For instance, he said he had learned within hours of the episode that women and children had been killed, and acknowledged that his own rules required investigation when a "significant" number of civilians died in actions involving marines. But later he said he saw no reason to look into how a "big" number of civilians had died in Haditha.

General Huck pointed out that his superiors -- including General Chiarelli and his predecessor, and Maj. Gen. Steve Johnson, the top Marine commander in Iraq at the time -- had received many of the field reports about the Haditha civilian deaths that he had received, and that none had opened an inquiry until the Time reporter, Tim McGirk, started asking questions.

Finally, at the end of the story is a short passage that really makes me worry for the Corps. If this trend continues, they may accidentally destroy themselves. To understand why I fear that conclusion you need a little history.

There was once a military force that got involved in politics. During a period of turmoil and perhaps a nationwide emotional malaise in their country, the officers of this military force became deeply enmeshed with a political party which had foisted a story that in the last war (which that nation had lost), the real reason for the loss was that the military had been "betrayed" with a "stab in the back" by soft-headed politicians and journalists on the home-front. The political party played up the idea that the military was still on captured ground at the end of that war, and that the defeat was not, therefore, a military one. This appealed to the ego of those military officers, and they promulgated the legend, and bound themselves to that party.

And no, I am not talking about Vietnam (but the parallel is scary). You can look up the history that I am referring to yourself. OK, so here is what pissed me off (Tim McGirk is a reporter for Time magazine):

The day's first witness, First Lt. Adam P. Mathes, the Company K executive officer at the time, said he and the battalion commander and the battalion executive officer had collectively dismissed Mr. McGirk's questions because they had considered them "sensational" and politically motivated.

"The questions were questionable," Lieutenant Mathes said, testifying by video link from Kuwait, where he is stationed. "It sounded like bad, negative spin. We tried to weed out the grievances that Mr. McGirk had against the Bush administration."

He said Mr. McGirk had seemed to have an antiwar agenda. "This guy is looking for blood," Lieutenant Mathis testified, "because blood leads headlines."

Here's a message for young 1LT Mathes: Lieutenant, it is not your goddamned job to screen for the political agenda of any damned civilian reporter. You are not to decide what a reporter can and cannot ask, beyond the completely reasonable limitations of Operational Security (OPSEC). You swear, like me, an oath to the Constitution. Not this party or that, not this officer or that ... to the United States Constitution. Remember that, Lieutenant. The same directive applies to your major. Pass it on. If I ever meet him, I will tell your battalion commander my own damned self.

OK, that is enough of that for a while.

This is propaganda -- or at least it would be, if the creator was not apparently just 15 years old. (When a child does this, not the government, there has got to be another name.) It is good propaganda, viewed objectively, by which I mean that it does effectively achieve the intent of the author. The fact that I personally also agree with the sentiment, and worry about it, is neither here nor there.

The Wall Street Journal has a good story from their solid reporter Yochi Dreazen titled, "New Scrutiny for Iraq Contractors, Killing by Blackwater Worker Poses Dilemma for U.S. Authorities." That story came out on 14 May, so it may or may not be behind a pay wall, here. But I do recommend it.

Sarin gas is nasty stuff. It is a nerve agent, and even a little bit can ruin your day. A new scientific report, detailed by The New York Times, suggests that some of Saddam's sarin from the last war, may still be hurting our veterans today.

Now, I am not a scientist. I pretend to no more understanding than the average well-informed generalist, and the science behind "Gulf War Syndrome" has become, sadly, politicized over the past sixteen years. I do not know how, or why, but in the 1990s the Veterans Administration and the Department of Defense could not seem to get a handle on this. We still literally do not know enough about all of these chemicals and their interactions, and the interactions of the chemical stew you ingest in the desert as preventatives, to understand how they can mess a fellow up for life. But this most recent study does seem, while limited, to point a way forward.

Some of you may remember last April's so-called "Revolt of the Generals." Now a couple of those same generals have filmed appeals for a group called VoteVets.org. Nobody can fault Major General John Batiste, in my opinion, for not being a straight shooter. (Probably literally as well as figuratively.) A life-long Republican, he retired after commanding the historic 1st Infantry Division in Iraq, and now manages a steel factory. He is not, therefore, beholden. The New York Times has a story on him, and you can go see the video yourself at VoteVets.org.

Meanwhile, on the other side of our country, the Los Angeles Times has a story about another straight-shooting Division Commander. Major General Benjamin R. "Randy" Mixon commands what we call MND-N (that's "Multinational Division-North"), which includes Diyala Province.

What is interesting to me comes somewhat farther down in the story. I am not entirely comfortable with the sourcing (I detest anonymous sources and broad statements such as "many people believe" because I think that is just sloppy journalism). But, if true, it might appear that my friend Paul Yingling's essay, which never really was intended for a civilian audience, is having an effect because it was widely read by a civilian audience:

But Mixon is not known for dealing with private disputes in such ways, said one recently retired Army general who is close to the commander. Instead, his frankness probably stems from a new "command climate" under Petraeus that is more conducive to blunt evaluations, the general said.

Many Army generals also have been stung by disclosures by officers. A recent article in the Armed Forces Journal by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, an Iraq veteran who is deputy commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, accused the Army's top generals of botching the war and misleading the American public and Congress.

"That's weighing on the consciences of the general officers of our Army," Nash said. Yingling "said they failed to live up to their sacred oath of telling the truth. As a consequence, I think everybody is saying: 'Not me. I'm not going to be guilty of that.' "

Fred Kaplan has his own analysis on this issue, or at least on the issue of our generals.

In your global "Oh shit" News Department: Russia has agreed to build a nuke plant in Myanmar ... nice. Why is it that only Al Jazeera seems to have covered this story, huh?

It is also somewhat educational to read how the Palestinian fratricide is reported in the Arab media. Since Sunday 43 Palestinians have been killed by other Palestinians, but the front page of Al Jazeera, well, they lead with something else. (Link as of 17:11 Mecca Time, Thursday)

In French news (and sorry, this story is only in French; I could not find it on an English-language site), the first Sarkozy Surprise: A National Security Council (sort of).

Two good Marines. Too bad they are both retired.

Finally, something to consider. These links go to a transcript, and the accompanying slides, from a briefing conducted yesterday.

Here are the salient bits, though. War is hard, but we do try:

On May 8th and into May 9th, a combined patrol of U.S. Special Forces and Afghan national army forces killed over 150 Taliban fighters in an engagement north of Sangin, in Helmand province of Afghan's southern province. This enemy contact was in support of NATO's international security force, Operations Achilles. During the fight, U.S. forces initially encountered high-capable Taliban in the Sangin valley, who pursued our units in an effort to seize an offensive advantage. Our forces repelled the initial Taliban assault and, using terrain and close air support, engaged the enemy with devastating effect.

During this engagement in Sangin, intelligence indicated there was a major or a senior Taliban commander for Helmand province at a particular target compound.

Slide, please.

What you see here is an actual snapshot from the full-motion video asset, which was able to confirm the presence of 10 to 20 Taliban, circled in green, at this target compound.

Next slide.

Through the same -- through the use of the same full-motion video asset, children, circled in red on the slide, were identified near the objective. Consequently, U.S. Special Forces did not engage the target compound, due to the risk of harm to civilians. This is an example of the care taken to prevent civilian casualties and mitigate risk to them amid a long and intense battle with the enemy.

It was learned after this engagement that the Taliban fighters were taking refuge among local villagers, using them as human shields. This angered the Sangin tribal leaders, who blamed the Taliban for deliberately involving civilians and bringing the fight to the area. In response, the local elders mobilized an anti-Taliban militia that reportedly killed three Taliban leaders and captured 15 Taliban fighters.

You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@Hotmail.com.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Rich Gallagher
Hometown: Fishkill, NY

Dear Eric,

A few unconnected comments.

Regarding the Rasmussen Poll about whether Bush knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance, I'm not sure how they phrased the question but I find it interesting how they reported the results. This is how they led the press release:

"Democrats in America are evenly divided on the question of whether George W. Bush knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in advance. Thirty-five percent (35%) of Democrats believe he did know, 39% say he did not know, and 26% are not sure. "

I don't claim to be a math whiz, but even if 35% of Democrats really believe that, how does it follow that Democrats are "evenly divided" on the question? It seems to me that the poll results show that 65% of the Democrats who responded do not believe that Bush knew in advance. The 26% who are "not sure" may not be certain that Bush didn't know, but they clearly do not believe that he did know.

The Departed -- there are actually two soundtracks, sort of. One is Howard Shore's original score; the other CD contains the rest of the music, including "Comfortably Numb."

Finally, Falwell. The MSM treats his legacy with kid gloves, but the press in New Zealand doesn't pull punches.

Name: Tom Parmenter
Hometown: West Newton, MA

Oliver Stone's Nixon has some scenes of Nixon reporting to shadowy figures in expensive cowboy clothes, but it also depicts a genuinely tragic Nixon.

Nixon is shown much as he probably saw himself, fighting to make his foreign policy work while being nibbled to death by the side issue of Watergate, in the process betraying not only his country, but his adoring wife and family.

It is not a positive picture of Nixon, but he is shown as a fully rounded personality -- something that escaped Robert Altman -- and he is in no way caricatured.

Name: Piack
Hometown: Austin, TX

So the new "War Czar" is supposed to coordinate the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and resolve disputes between State and Defense. Um, isn't that the President's job?

Name: Thomas Heiden
Hometown: Stratford, CT

Eric,

I honestly thought nothing could surprise me about Bush & Co. anymore, but James Comey's testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, as reported today in the New York Times (and a surprisingly good account I heard on NPR this morning) simply left me speechless.

If the despicable tool Alberto Gonzales is allowed to remain Attorney General after this revelation, well, what could one say?

I'm surprised Card and Gonzales didn't proceed from Ashcroft's room to Florida to see if they could get poor Terri Schiavo to sign off on illegal wiretapping.

Name: Kurt Dillard
Hometown: DC

Did you see this report on yesterday's testimony by former Deputy AG Comey? I've never been a fan of Ashcroft, but one would think that the administration could control themselves and not burden him with political issues while he's gravely ill.

Name: Josh, aka "bub"
Hometown: Chicago

In the Edsall case, Edsall blew it by being too cute by half. You went out of your way to argue he's capable of as much in your first post on the issue. However, you also made the more important point in that first post -- and reiterated it in your response to my comment -- that "Not everything that would confirm one's worldview turns out to be accurate. Some things need to be checked before being built upon." If all we remember of this episode are those words, and that David Broder wears wooden underwear, then I'll drink to that.

Name: Richard Silverstein
Hometown: Seattle, WA

Dear Eric: Maybe it's time to debunk the doctored MEMRI "translation" of the script for the Hamas Mickey Mouse TV show which has made the rounds of the international media. Even Matt Yglesias quotes approvingly of Andrew Sullivan's coverage of the story in his "Jihad TV" (yuck, Matt).

Well, it turns out that MEMRI's translation is flat out wrong & turns the dialogue into an annihilationist tirade against Israel, which it isn't. Though to be fair & honest the show does use children for political motives, which is deeply objectionable. But Israelis do this as well, I'm sorry to say, as anyone will remember who saw the pictures of schoolgirls writing "love notes" to Hassan Nasrallah directly onto Israeli munitions about to sail over the Lebanese border into Hezbollah strongholds.

Of course, CNN's Glenn Beck's gotten into the act & endorsed MEMRI's fabrication as well. There apparently was a bit of a brouhaha over at CNN when its Arabic service refused to approve running the MEMRI story with Beck berating them for it.

Check out this, and this even clearer analysis, and my later post.

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