Once more into the breach


Hey folks, George Zornick here. Eric's reporting in Israel this week (and next), and so LTC Bob Bateman has taken command of today's Altercation. He and others will be back often during the next couple weeks.

First, though, Sal Nunziato -- friend of, and contributor to, Altercation -- has a piece in the current Newsweek that's worth a read, and not just because of the previously mentioned associations. Sal speaks deeply to a trend occurring in cities and towns across America, and it might be enough to get you to close down iTunes, or at least never visit the CD section at Best Buy again.

LTC Bob Bateman:

Fairly regularly I receive some despairing and occasionally some mildly hyperbolic letters from Altercation readers, usually in reference to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Folks are upset, and sometimes use me either as a sounding board or just somebody who might help them in understanding things. In response it is my custom to counsel moderation and to suggest to my correspondents a look in our collective rear-view mirror. Sometimes that helps. Besides, I am naturally inclined in that direction.

Like Eric, I am a historian. The concept of "inevitability" is accordingly alien to my way of thinking. I may accept the apparent fact that things like "business cycles" exist, but a sense of hard-and-fast predestination is not a part of that acknowledgement. Indeed, I am loath to be very explicit in anything I extract from history. The search for broad "lessons learned" may be an inclination of the profession of arms, but for my own part I lean towards the motto of the Department of History at West Point. This motto suggests that it is not hard-and-fast "Lessons Learned" which we should try to pull from our study of the past, but rather some measure of wisdom. Sapientia Per Historium -- Wisdom Through History -- is the motto of the department. This serves me well and mitigates against some of my own frustrations. It also provides a reminder for me to return to the past when confronted with a thorny issue in the present.

When viewed that way, it is easier to see that the problems we face today, sadly, are not really all that unique -- it is only our presentist inclinations that incline us to believe that these are unprecedented times and situations. Looking back just one hundred years, however, disabuses us. Many of the same issues we are wrestling with today were on the table then. Consider this: At the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was already several years into a counter-insurgency war in a distant land which came hard on the heels of a rapid and overwhelming victory by our conventional forces. America as a whole was wrestling with its collective conscience, trying to decide if these overseas efforts were legitimate and even if so, were they worth the cost in blood and treasure we had expended there. No less a figure than Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) came down hard on the topic. See if any of this sounds familiar:

There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it -- perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands -- but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector -- not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now -- why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.

Meanwhile, the Army was tied down and troops were dying, more than 4,000 over the first several years, even as the institutional Army struggled with the fact that it was not prepared or organized to fight a sustained unconventional conflict against forces organized as guerrillas.

Much of this was brought back to my attention through historian Brian Linn's new book, Echoes of Battle. Linn provides some telling points, particularly when he quotes primary sources.

Linn points out that there were several officers who had problems with the conduct of the war. Writing in the Journal of the Military Institute in 1907, the future general officer Robert Bullard said, "Our whole recent experience, then, our present duties and future prospects all point to the idea that by the study of war alone we shall be but little prepared for by far the greater burdens which are to fall upon us, which are the making of peace."

At nearly the same time, a prominent general named Leonard Wood wrote, "I don't think we have any moral right to go into a country, discipline a lot of savage people, a process which is generally accompanied by a great loss of life, and then put indifferent people in charge of them and permit conditions to rise which render the repetition of the process necessary. It is wrong." (Remember, he was writing in the first decade of the 20th century.)

These few snippets from history actually represent a broader sentiment then-current in the Army. We fought a long, sometimes brutal, counter-insurgency in the Philippines beginning almost immediately after our lightning-like victory in the Spanish-American War. But unlike the popular support which existed for the Span-Am War, the fighting in the Philippines was unpopular from the start, until it began to fade from public consciousness and the pages of the newspapers. (Sound familiar?) Many of those men in uniform 100 years ago, officers like Bullard and Wood, felt simultaneously frustrated that they fought in an unpopular war far from home, but also compelled to do the right thing once they were in it. Compounding the sentiment was the feeling that we should not leave things half done, stemming in no small part from a sense of obligation toward the people of the Philippine archipelago.

I pass on these observations because they do seem to reflect the personal feelings of many of my peers. Nobody is happy about the fighting that we must do, and many are frustrated about a whole host of things, not the least of which has been our own failings. If you have any doubt about that, check this out.

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

Restoring your faith:

On a much lighter note, watch this and see if you do not come out the far end smiling. This one fellow, Matt, has done more to bring people around the globe together in a recognition of our shared humanity and magnificent differences than it would appear that the U.N. does in an average month.

Campaign update:

Early last week the Bateman/Pierce 2008 ticket met in Boston. In a spirited but enlightening exchange, we have established at least three planks for our campaign:

1. We support increased relations with Scotland and the lowering of the trade barriers which have driven the cost of Laphroaig, Macallan, Lagavulin, etc., through the roof. In the event that it turns out that there are, in fact, no such barriers extant, we propose the creation of some. Whatever it takes for us to go to Scotland to "investigate" these circumstances in greater detail.

2. We support a military with sufficient training time and resources so that it does not do this.

3. We call for an immediate end to the Whole State of Michigan. They may secede, or we may present them to Canada as a peace offering for our three previous attempts to take over their country. But either way, Michigan is outta here, and cannot be part of the Big Ten anymore. (Uh, OK, that last one was me, not Pierce. But I'm from Ohio, what do you want? I realize this may cost us votes in Michigan, but it will ensure a landslide in Ohio.)

First female 4-star general:

The most rational write-up comes in the Guardian.

And by the same author, I recommend this.

From Tom Dispatch:

The President's "surge" -- those extra 30,000 ground troops sent into Iraq in the first half of 2007 -- has, it is claimed, proven the negativity of all his doubters and critics unwarranted. Indeed, it is now agreed, security conditions have improved significantly and in ways "that few thought likely a year ago." You already know that part of the story, especially -- and it's the Vietnam era's infamous "body count" in reverse -- that falling levels of "violence" indicate the arrival of some measure of success (finally) for the President and his followers in Iraq.

In "The Good News in Iraq," Tom Engelhardt writes: "As a result, cratered Iraq -- a land with at least 50% unemployment, still lacking decent electricity, potable water, hospitals with drugs (or even doctors, so many having fled), or courts with judges (40 of them having been assassinated and many more injured since 2003) or lawyers, many of whom joined the more than two million Iraqis who have gone into exile -- is, today, modestly quieter. But don't be fooled. So many years later, Iraqis are still dying in prodigious numbers, and significant numbers of those dying are doing so at the hands of Americans."

Engelhardt then explores the other "body count" -- that of dead (or in the U.S. Army's word, "neutralized") enemies, including startling numbers of Iraqi civilians -- and next proceeds to other kinds of counts, all of which add up to a new version of the President's 2007 surge in Iraq. Strikingly, he focuses not just on the surge on the ground, or even the poorly covered air surge of the last year and a half, but the political surge (which has had American "advisers" and "mentors" pouring into Iraq), the prison building and inmate surge, the surge in base building, and the surge in demands by the Bush administration for an American future in Iraq.

All of this adds up to a new picture of Iraq in the last 18 months as a U.S. "surge-athon," an across-the-board ramping up of American power in that country.

Engelhardt concludes: "Given the situation of Iraq more than five years after the invasion, to speak of this urge to surge and its results as 'success' or as 'good news' is essentially obscene. Think of Iraq instead as a cocked gun. It's loaded, it's held to your head, and things are improving only to the extent that, recently, it hasn't gone off. ... So let me offer this bit of advice. When you read the news, skip the 'good' part. The figures demonstrating 'improvement' may (or may not) be perfectly real, but they also represent an effort to dominate (as well as to divide and conquer) in an essentially colonial fashion; worse yet, it's an effort barely held together by baling wire and reliant on the destruction of ever more Iraqi neighborhoods.

"If you want a prediction, here it is and it couldn't be simpler: This cannot end well. Not for Washington. Not for the U.S. military. Not for Americans. And, above all, not for Iraqis.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: Stephen Carver
Hometown: Los Angeles

Dr. Alterman,

I have NEVER seen a better example of Contempt of Congress in words, attitude and body language, than the performance put on by David Addington in front of the Judiciary Committee. I wish they would arrest him for that obvious show of contempt, throw his ass in jail and then say to his boss: Congress has passed a Joint Resolution declaring Mr. Addington an Enemy Combatant and we won't release him until you speak with us about torture, Mr. Cheney.

Then, Mr. Cheney and his lapdog (oops, boss) can take that to the Supreme Court and we'll have a great big ol' Constitutional separation of powers donnybrook.

For the six years it will take to go through the court system, Mr. Addington can spend the extra time he'll suddenly find on his hands writing about his legal opinions on torture that he didn't care to share with the the greatest deliberative legal body on the face of the planet.

Have you no shame, Mr. Addington?

I am beginning to ask myself if anyone, other than a few soldiers who were obviously ordered to torture, will EVER be held accountable for the atrocities committed by this Administration in the name of the American people and with our tax dollars.

Name: Rich Gallagher
Hometown: Fishkill, NY

Dear Eric,

I find it interesting that no one in the MSM seems to have noted the hypocrisy of the Republicans who have criticized Obama for refusing public financing. The Republicans allegedly favor smaller government and reduced government spending, so isn't Obama actually doing the fiscally prudent thing by declining to accept $85 million from the Treasury?

Also conspicuously absent from the coverage of public financing is the fact that the vast majority of taxpayers refuse to contribute to the Presidential Election Fund. Last year only 7.3% of taxpayers elected to have $3 of their 2006 taxes contributed to the fund, which suggests that most voters do not think much of the current system of public financing.

Name: Lefty in Burque
Hometown: Albuquerque

Congratulations on actually typing out the letters that spell A-N-D-R-E-W S-U-L-L-I-V-A-N and even mentioning him in an almost positive way (vis-à-vis his mea culpa).

With Obama folding on FISA and cheering the SCOTUS decision to overturn D.C.'s over 30-year old handgun ban, I need two things:

1. A better understanding of his judicial philosophy (what types of Supremes will he appoint), and

2. Somebody to help me "get" Radiohead. My wife loves them and I appreciate some of it but I remain unconvinced (but open to the powers of persuasion).

Name: Pat O'Neill
Hometown: Folsom PA

"There are, in fact, several passages in the New Testament where homosexuals are condemned as well and an acquaintance of mine corrected me on the matter. "

Yes, but none of them are from the mouth of Jesus and most of them are in documents that respected experts will tell you have been fiddled with, mis-translated, and misinterpreted for most of the past 2,000 years.

Name: Don
Hometown: Riverdale, NY

In case you all missed it, Lt G's stream of consciousness truth-telling has been shut down by his superior officers. As he states in his 27 June posting:

Due to a rash posting on my part, and decisions made above my pay-grade, I have been ordered to stop posting on Kaboom, effective immediately. Though I committed no OPSEC violations, due to a series of extenuating circumstances -- the least of which was me being on leave -- my "The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage" post on May 28 did not go through the normal vetting channels. It's totally on me, as it was too much unfiltered truth. I'm a soldier first, and orders are orders. So it is.

BZ Lt. G! You did great work. Hope to read you again in the future. Godspeed to you and the Gravediggers.

Name: Hornito
Hometown: Sacramento, CA

This week's "Slacker Friday" is the best read on the net right now. Charles Pierce was/is simply on fire. The man is brilliant, and Eric is to be complimented for having him.

Great work!

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.