For it's "Tommy this," and "Tommy that," and "Throw him out, the brute ..."

››› ››› ERIC ALTERMAN

Lt. Col. Bob Bateman is filling in for Eric Alterman today.

Fort Hood, Texas, Summer, 1995:

"Sir, we have a problem."

It was my First Sergeant, approaching me tentatively on this sunny Texas morning, with bad news. One of our sergeants was absent without leave.

AWOL happens. So does desertion. Indeed, it can rightly be considered a normal feature of military life. After 30 days of absence, the charge of absence is converted to one of desertion. Though our rates of these charges were low in the mid-90s, they were not as low as they are today. But AWOL is usually something that first-term enlistees do, not prospective career sergeants.

"Sir, I think I know why Sergeant M___ took off," said my Top.

"Yeah, well, out with it."

"Uh, sir, I think I ought to let the men tell you."

With a nod, I accepted this indirect route. My First Sergeant always had his reasons, and his reasons were almost always good. Besides, only a fool contradicts their own First Sergeant unless given good cause. Four soldiers filed into my office from where they had been waiting outside. All of them good troops, first-termers mostly, near the end of their own enlistments. Experienced and steady men, like Sergeant M___, they had been with him on Saturday night when the five of them had left Fort Hood for the social opportunities of Austin.

What came out was a simple story. The five arrived in Austin at around 21:00 hrs and agreed to meet back at the car at 02:15, not long after the bars had closed. Then they split up, with Sergeant M___ going his own way. At some point in the night the other four had rejoined. When the bars closed, they left in a pack and headed back toward the car. Halfway there they all saw Sergeant M___ coming out of a "blue" bar. That is to say, an exclusively gay bar.

Nobody said a word during the entire ride back to the barracks.

On Monday morning, at the 06:30 Physical Training and Accountability formation, Sergeant M___ was not in his normal position, on the right end of his squad. He was not in the barracks. He was not in the motor pool. He was nowhere to be found. At the end of 30 days, he was listed as a deserter, and I lost one damned fine Heavy Wheeled Vehicle (88M) mechanic and potential leader of men.

What a f@#$ing waste.

In 1995, had you asked me, I would have expressed the opinion that I was against gays openly serving in the military. Not on moral grounds, because I do not believe that human genetics is subject to morality, but because it would just have been too damned expensive to prosecute the majority of soldiers who would have done something stupid against openly serving gays. Those prosecutions too would have been a waste, and their probable numbers would have greatly exceeded the potential benefit of having more gay men and women in uniform. Yes, it would have been a moral effort (because nobody should be forced to conceal their preferences, let alone preferences determined by their DNA), but it would have been a wasted distraction nonetheless. My job as a company commander was to create a unit of men which could be used by the nation in war. Period. Any distraction -- in money, time, or effort -- from this central mission was counter to what the nation needed me to do.

Today, and for roughly the past four years or so, that calculus is inverted.

Today most soldiers could care less about the sexual preference of a serviceman. Call it the Will & Grace effect, call it whatever you want, but the acceptance level of our soldiers has multiplied four-fold in the past decade. Now, the potential cost of prosecuting idiots who act out on their personal opinions about human sexuality is much lower than the actual cost (in terms of lost human potential and sunk-cost of training) of banning gays from service to the nation. Now this law, written by Congress, stands in the way of effectiveness. It is time for this law to go.

We are, ladies and gentlemen, in a global war that will last decades. You may not like this fact. You may want to say that it should not be. That is not my concern. What is my concern -- because that is why you create people like me -- is that we may once again live in peace. My part of that equation means winning the combat part of war. There are, of course, other elements to this complex equation, but those too are not for me to decide. I am just one simple infantry officer. But my simplicity gives me clarity in some areas. To do so, to win, I know that we will need every damned swinging Richard we can get in the infantry (and gender irrespective, in the military as a whole). Bullets do not care what your gender may be, nor your preferences. We cannot, and should not, tolerate the loss of combat effectiveness that "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" now imposes upon our armed forces. This. Law. Must. Go.

I am a soldier. I am sworn to support and defend the Constitution, and to follow the orders of those appointed (or elected) over me. I cannot change a law created and enacted by the legislature. I cannot lobby Congress.

But you can.

I do not know if this will matter. Once, I might have had hope that it would. What disgusts me is that this ambassador's appeal, apparently, only applies to State Department translators. Not our military ones, of which there are thousands more, working directly or more often through contracting companies, with us. Like Mayada.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is what I fear. It is part of why I write here on Altercation. It is also, based upon my experience, true. Your mileage may vary. I should note something that I have not openly revealed here on Altercation before: I am an infantry officer. You should know that. It might influence your assessments.

An excerpt:

Less than half the civilian population believes military leaders can be relied on to respect civilian control of the military, according to surveys by the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, an academic think tank in North Carolina. Never mind that 92 percent of military leaders still insist their civilian masters should have the final say on whether to use military force. And while nearly two-thirds of military leaders believe they share the same values as the American people, only about one-third of their civilian counter-parts agree. The vast majority of civilians believe service members are intolerant, stingy, rigid and lacking in creativity. More than 20 percent report they'd be disappointed if their children joined the military. Before the invasion of Iraq, the editorial boards of major newspapers endorsed the use of force, yet a search turned up no calls for Americans to join up to support the effort. President Bush urged civilians to go shopping.

"The military is at war, but the country is not," warns University of Maryland sociologist David Segal. "And the military resents that."

I cannot refute these statements. They are for you to decode on your own.

If you do not believe this Washington Post story, then perhaps the New Yorker's George Packer might convince you, as he speaks on much the same thing.

I really wanted to give you a link to a National Journal article about, well, killing. Unfortunately, the article is for subscribers only. See their base site here, and if you have a chance, search for the article "Intimate Killing" by Sydney Freedberg. As fine a piece of informative journalism as one could hope for. Truly.

There are stories being printed in The New Republic which, to me, ring a false tone. They are accounts from an alleged soldier, who is alleged to be in Iraq, and who relates some pretty grotesque things.

You should know, if you do not, that American soldiers are indeed capable of some pretty disgusting and gross things. Accounts, such as those in E.B. Sledge's With the Old Breed (an account of the Marines in the Pacific in WWII) discuss members of "The Greatest Generation" defacing bodies and using skulls for their entertainment. It does happen.

But the stories in The New Republic sound like, well, BS to me. At least parts of them do.

But what really strikes me, and should strike you, is the degree of "due diligence" that New Republic editor Franklin Foer applied before he started publishing these stories. I believe he was, probably, derelict in his duty to us, the readers.

I know Ralph Peters. On a personal level, I really like him. But then again, I really like to argue. I do not always agree with him. He is an intellectual pit bull. But sometimes he hits the mark. Left, Right, or Center, one should read when you see Ralph's byline. He may infuriate you. He may even disgust you. But he will make you think about things.

The cold, really cold, hard truth: If we leave Iraq, there will be something approaching genocide. There will certainly be what can only be called "ethnic cleansing." If you advocate our departure, you must accept this as a reality of your moral choice. You must acknowledge that you value American lives at some much higher ratio than you do Iraqi lives.

Tom Hayden is an idiot:

Little is known about the shadowy US military advisors currently serving in Iraq. Their numbers are estimated at between 3,000 and 8,000 according to expert studies, not including countless private contractors. They operate under the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq [MNSTC-I], whose mission includes everything from the development to the training, equipping and mentoring of the Iraqi ministries of the interior and defense. One of the key advisory groups is the Civilian Police Assistance Training Team, which trains, equips, organizes and mentors the Department of the Interior, an agency riddled with human rights violators.

Ladies and gentlemen, Google "MNSTC-I" yourselves. See if you think they are a secret. Oh, and while you're at it, consider how "shadowy" a group can be when one of its majors is openly writing a weekly update on Altercation, on a major media website, for an entire year.

DC Within Earshot:

NSTR.

You can write to the "shadowy" now-Lt. Col. Bateman at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.

Corespondence Corner:

Name: Thomas M. Tamm
Hometown: Potomac, Maryland USA

Dear Eric: Is not the administration's position that they would not permit the U.S. Attorney to prosecute a Congressional Contempt referral an implicit admission that they allow politics to impact prosecutions? They are admitting that they would interfere with the independent judgment of a prosecutor on a specific case. I suggest that this is precisely what the firings of the U.S. Attorneys are ultimately about. Yes, they serve at the pleasure of the president, but they do not prosecute at the pleasure of the president. The White House is guilty of taking the blindfold off lady justice, not just covering her breasts. I am a former DOJ lawyer, for what that is worth.

Name: Thomas Heiden
Hometown: Stratford, CT

Eric,

Alberto Gonzales has told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he and Andrew Card went to Ashcroft's bedside in response to "congressional concerns".

Yeah, right. The White House Chief-of-Staff and White House counsel go to a hospital to strong-arm the Attorney General of the United States, on their own, due to congressional concerns about the wiretapping authorization expiring.

Yeah, I believe that. Sure. OK.

Name: David Fuller
Hometown: Peotone, IL

Dr. A. --

I don't mean to nitpick, and I've never been accused of being a math-whiz, but I did notice that you quoted this:

"A Pew poll at roughly the same time found 19 percent liberal and 39 percent conservative"

and then said this:

"None of these polls ever displayed even a two-to-one advantage."

Not trying to lend any credence to Bai, but 19% to 39% seems to me like slightly more than a 2 to 1 advantage in the Pew poll. Just keeping you honest (which you already are).

Eric replies: "Whoops. Point stands, though."

Name: Ed Tracey
Hometown: Lebanon, New Hampshire

Professor, can't share your disdain of "La Vie en Rose." Flawed, yes: flash-backs-and-forward *way* too often, and allusions to certain French events were oblique for an anglophone.

But my attention never flailed, the scenery is great -- and about 1/5 of the film is set in the US (in part because her romance with Marcel Cerdan meant he was boxing here often, winning the middleweight title in Jersey City). Marion Cotillard convinced me she *was* Piaf (as Jamie Foxx did for Ray Charles). And for those who say they can't follow tiny English subtitles: these were humungous, hard to miss.

So, this may be a film to have another look at down the road.

Name: Jeff Mark
Hometown: Alameda CA

A couple of comments about today's lyric quote...

First off, are you even old enough to remember that song? I was barely 16 when "Phil Ochs in Concert" was released ('66), and I'm pretty sure I'm a couple of years older than you.

Second, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" was an indictment of the liberalism of the time. On "...In Concert" Ochs introduces the song by defining a liberal as someone who's "10 degrees to the left when times are good, and 10 degrees to the right when it affects them personally."

That seems considerably harsher than the tone of your post.

Eric replies: Dude, it's just a song...

Name: Bob Wenning
Hometown: Chicago

Hi Eric:

In light of the threat that President Bush continues to say Al Qaeda in Iraq presents to the stability of Iraq and the world, why don't the Democrats take him at his word? They should just respond, "OK Mr. President, if this is the case, let's remove our troops from the middle of this civil war between Shiite and Sunni insurgents and change their mission to exclusively contain and wipe out Al-Qaeda in Iraq." This was one of the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, as well, and should not require nearly as many troops as refereeing a civil war.

Name: David J Zimny
Hometown: Oakland, CA

General Rupert Smith was the commander of British troops during the 1991 Gulf War, leader of British security forces in Northern Ireland, and United Nations commander in Kosovo and Bosnia. In his recent book THE UTILITY OF FORCE, he offers the following comments on our war effort:

"In the face of U.S. deployment the enemy developed a protracted war strategy. The aim was no longer to attain a decisive victory in the field, but rather to avoid defeat while creating unfavorable conditions for America's political victory... For the United States was perceived to be lacking a clear strategy of its own, and thus faced with a military stalemate would eventually tire of the war and reach for a negotiated settlement.

"After three years it became evident that the United States and its allies were bogged down. As the death toll rose and young Americans continued to leave for war, the government was faced with virulent criticism from anti-war protesters. ... The war became bogged down for a number of reasons. First and foremost because the opposing objectives were asymmetric: the U.S. was seeking a decisive engagement -- following the logic of industrial war -- in order to maintain their favored regime in power. The enemy actively sought to avoid the decisive engagement, while at the same time causing maximum damage and cost to U.S. forces.

"Thus the people's will to support the U.S.-favored regime, a necessary component of the condition being fought for, was eroded further. And at the same time the will of the American people to continue to sacrifice their sons for the cause of our allies was evaporating fast. Ultimately, the U.S. failed to break the trinity of government, people and military that held the enemy together -- while its own trinity was put at peril."

This is General Smith's evaluation of our war -- the VIETNAM War, that is. Will we never learn?

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.