Monday, November 12, 2007

War Is Brutal and Chocolate Is Yummy

Here is a round of articles about U.S. troops and how they are treated, beginning with this piece at National Review Online by Mackubin Thomas Owens, titled (unsurprisingly), "Slandering the American Soldier: An American Media Tradition":

As anyone who has not been vacationing on the moon knows, The New Republic embarrassed itself this summer by publishing and defending a series of stories by one Scott Thomas Beauchamp, an active-duty soldier serving in Iraq. As we know, Beauchamp told of his comrades in Iraq mocking a woman horribly scarred by an IED, wrote of another wearing part of a human skull, and depicted yet another using a Bradley fighting vehicle to run over stray dogs. All of the stories have been discredited.

There’s not much I can add to the substance of the story. But what bothers me most about the whole dishonorable episode is what it says about the attitude of the media toward the American soldier. There is, as I have argued before, a troubling predisposition on the part of the press to believe the worst about those fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is plenty of talk about supporting the troops, but it is a sham.

gave the game away by admitting that the point of the series penned by Beauchamp was to illustrate “the morally and emotionally distorting effects of war.” In doing so, TNR was reinforcing the left-wing stereotype that has shaped popular opinion about soldiers since the Vietnam War: that they are dehumanized animals.

According to the conventional wisdom passed down from the anti-war left of the Sixties and Seventies and absorbed by the press — even those too young to remember it — Vietnam brutalized those who fought it. At first vilified by the anti-war left as war criminals and baby-killers, American soldiers soon evolved into victims—victimized first by their country, which made them poor and sent them off to fight an unjust war, then victimized again by a military that dehumanized them and turned them into killers. Beauchamp provided TNR that pre-approved narrative, facts be damned. This was Vietnam redux.

Owens is talking about My Lai:
And to this day, critics of that war invoke the specter of My Lai to prove that atrocities were widespread in Vietnam. Not too long ago, Ellis Henican of Newsday quoted the late Ron Ridenour, the soldier who publicized the My Lai massacre (even though he was not present): “My Lai was a whole lot more than one crazy lieutenant. And there were plenty of My Lais.”

But this is nonsense. Atrocities did occur in Vietnam, but they were far from widespread. Between 1965 and 1973, 201 soldiers and 77 Marines were convicted of serious crimes against the Vietnamese. Of course, the fact that many crimes, either in war or peace, go unreported, combined with the particular difficulties encountered by Americans fighting in Vietnam, suggest that more such acts were committed than reported or tried.
In both Vietnam and Iraq, news stories about soldiers have been largely negative. But heroism and sacrifice were far more prevalent in Vietnam than atrocities, and the same holds true today. The TNR-Beauchamp affair illustrates just how little things have changed since Vietnam. In April of 2005, Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, U.S. Army, became the first soldier in the Iraq war to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He was killed in action when his outnumbered unit was attacked by Iraqi forces at the Baghdad airport on April 4, 2003, and is credited with saving hundreds of lives. Yet as Robert Kaplan observed in a piece in the Wall Street Journal that “according to LexisNexis, by June 2005, two months after his posthumous award, [Smith’s] stirring story had drawn only 90 media mentions, compared to 4,677 for the supposed Quran abuse at Guantanamo Bay, and 5,159 for the court-martialed Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England.

To read of the abundant acts of heroism in Iraq and Afghanistan by U.S. soldiers, all one has to do is read Bing West’s account of Fallujah, No True Glory; or the blogs of Michael Yon; or the remarkable story by Jeff Emanuel in the American Spectator, entitled “The Longest Morning,” an account of a battle in Samarra involving four paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division. Those paratroopers “became the object of a pre-planned, coordinated effort by dozens of al Qaeda to kidnap and slaughter American soldiers only days before General Petraeus’s internationally televised testimony to the U.S. Congress on the state of the war in Iraq. Not all survived — but those who did fought like heroes, saving each other and preserving the honor of their nation.”

What strikes me about this is how it's all about us. It's all about the American soldiers, the American marines, battling Iraqi insurgents, making a heroic stand against Al Qaeda and, as Owens writes, "saving each other."

Here is another account of another episode in the same war, this time written by an independent journalist who "embedded himself with the Iraqi people" instead of with the U.S. military, so he could observe and report from their point of view:
On the day martial law was declared, US tanks began rolling into the outskirts of Fallujah, while war planes continued to pound the city with as many as 50,000 residents still inside. Iyad Allawi, the US-installed interim prime minister, laid out the six steps for implementing his "security law". These entailed a 6pm curfew in Fallujah, the blocking of all highways except for emergencies and for government vehicles, the closure of all city and government services, a ban on all weapons in Fallujah, the closure of Iraq's borders with Syria and Jordan (except to allow passage to food trucks and vehicles carrying other necessary goods), and the closure of Baghdad International Airport for 48 hours.

Meanwhile, in the US, most corporate media outlets were busy spreading the misinformation that Fallujah had fallen under the control of the Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There was no available evidence that Zarqawi had ever set foot inside the city. It was amply evident that the resistance in the city was composed primarily of people from Fallujah itself. However, that did not deter the establishment media, which portrayed the assault on the city as a hostage intervention situation.

As they had done during the April siege, the military raided and occupied Fallujah general hospital, cutting it off from the rest of the city. On 8 November 2004 the New York Times reported, "The assault against Fallujah began here Sunday night as American Special Forces and Iraqi troops burst into Fallujah General Hospital and seized it within an hour." Of course, this information was immediately followed by the usual parroting of US military propaganda, "At 10pm, Iraqi troops clambered off seven-ton trucks, sprinting with American Special Forces soldiers around the side of the main building of the hospital, considered a refuge for insurgents and a centre of propaganda against allied forces, entering the complex to bewildered looks from patients and employees."

Harb al-Mukhtar, my interpreter and driver, arrived at my hotel the next morning in a sombre mood. "How can we live like this, we are trapped in our own country. You know Dahr, everyone is praying for God to take revenge on the Americans. Everyone!" He said even in their private prayers people were praying for God to take vengeance on the Americans for what they were doing in Fallujah. "Everyone I've talked to the last couple of nights, 80 or 90 people, have admitted that they are doing this," he said as I collected my camera and notepad to prepare to leave. Out on the streets of Baghdad, the anxiety was palpable. The threat of being kidnapped or car bombed, or simply robbed, relentlessly played on our minds as Harb and I went about conducting interviews that had been prearranged. We tried to minimise our time on the streets by returning to my hotel immediately on completing interviews. The security situation, already horrible, was deteriorating further with each passing day.

That night, when Salam Talib arrived at my hotel to work on a radio despatch with me, he had a wild look in his eyes and sweat beads on his forehead. "My friend has just been killed, and he was one of my best friends," he said staring out my window. Salam went on to tell me that a relative of another of his friends had been missing for six days. "This morning, his body was brought to his family by someone who found it on the road. The body had been shot twice in the chest and twice in the head. There were visible signs of torture, and the four bullet shells that were used to kill him had been placed in his trouser pockets. This news has driven me crazy, Dahr. The number of people killed here is growing so fast every day," he said, his hands raised in that familiar gesture of despair. "When I was a child, it was common to have some family member who was killed in the war with Iran. But now, it feels as though everyone is dying every day."

I found this article via a link at Bruce Kesler's blog, Democracy Project. That title should not be taken according to its plain meaning. Kesler clearly intends the phrase "democracy project" to be a synonym for "war" -- and specifically, right now, the war in Iraq. Kesler praises the Owens piece; he links to Dahr Jamail's article to contrast it unfavorably with Owens' far more accurate and correct (in his view) description of what war is like as waged by our troops:
I read “Slandering the American Soldier: An American media tradition,” by Mackubin Thomas Owens and passed on to other articles this morning. Until I came across this one in Britain’s Leftist New Statesman: ”What I saw in Fallujah,” by Dahr Jamail (Published 01 November 2007). This Jamail is a former Denali national park mountain guide, of Lebanese extraction, of no military experience. Jamail writes:
The second assault on Fallujah was a monument to brutality and atrocity made in the United States of America. Like the Spanish city of Guernica during the 1930s, and Grozny in the 1990s, Fallujah is our monument of excess and overkill. It was soon to become, even for many in the US military, a textbook case of the wrong way to handle a resistance movement. Another case of winning the battle and losing the war.

Owens, by contrast, writes:
On this Veterans Day, media folk predisposed to believe the worst about the American fighting man when the evidence is so clearly in his favor need to get out and meet a few more.

Then, below a photograph of American soldiers walking down a Fallujah street, greeting storekeepers and children who are beaming and waving happily, this caption: "Patrolling in Fallujah now, to welcoming faces."

And the lesson to be taken away from the fable: "War is brutal. So is slander of our warriors. Our major media focuses on the first, and too often furthers the latter."

There are so many conflicting messages here that it just boggles the brain. What Dahr Jamail saw and heard in Fallujah, and what Fallujans themselves experienced -- such as that blood-spattered man cowering against a wall with his hands up in surrender, abject terror in his face, with two Marines standing over him pointing their weapons in his face -- is explained, Kesler tells us, by the fact that "war is brutal." But yet it is wrong (both factually and morally) to say, as Dahr Jamail does, that "the second assault on Fallujah was a monument to brutality and atrocity." Even though war is brutal, and "our warriors" are aggressively waging that war (which is why they are called warriors, right?). War is brutal, but it's slander to suggest that our warriors are active participants in the brutality of war.

Furthermore, what Jamail witnessed and what he was told in interviews with residents of Fallujah is "slander" -- why? Well, because Jamail is a "former Denali national park mountain guide, of Lebanese extraction, of no military experience." Before he became a journalist, Jamail ran guided tours in national parks. That means he cannot be trusted to accurately report what he sees and hears. Jamail "is of Lebanese extraction." There are Lebanese people in his family. His national heritage is Lebanese. That means he cannot be trusted to accurately report what he sees and hears. Jamail "has no military experience." That means he cannot be trusted to accurately report what he sees and hears.

Well, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush have no military experience, either. That must mean they cannot be trusted to accurately report what other people tell them that they are seeing and hearing in Iraq. Right? Oddly enough, no. Not right.

If we want a truthful, accurate account of what the second assault on Fallujah was like for Iraqi residents of Fallujah, we must turn away from former national park tour guides of Lebanese extraction and no military experience who have embedded themselves with the Iraqi people living in Fallujah, and look instead to American writers who have a solid track record of personal and/or professional identification with the U.S. military, and who embedded themselves with the American military units who were part of the second assault on Fallujah:
Two authors who have [met and spent time with"American fighting men"] are Patrick O’Donnell, who embedded with First Platoon, Lima Company, Third Battalion, First Marine Regiment in the November 2004 second battle of Fallujah, and wrote about it in We Were One: Shoulder to Shoulder with the Marines Who Took Fallujah. Another is Bing West, who wrote about it in No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah, which even Iraq war critic Tom Ricks of the Washington Post called, “"the best book on the U.S. military in Iraq to emerge so far."

To recall, (links here and here) Fallujah in early 2004 was the epitome of the failing and faltering U.S. military effort in Iraq, until cleared in ferocious house-to-house battle in November 2004.

Today, we hear little in the major media about Fallujah. So, here’s an update from a recent visitor to Camp Fallujah.
It's one of the cruel tricks of history that those who are making it don't know they are at the time. The same holds true for these guys. To say that what they're doing is amazing would be to criminally understate the facts.

These Marines live, work, sleep, eat and bathe in the same neighborhoods they are helping to stabilize. In doing so, they're no longer driving in from a forward operating base, or FOB, outside the city and conducting patrols. Instead, they wake up in the morning, plan a patrol, then walk out into the neighborhood and greet the men and women sweeping their sidewalks or tending their shops. They're literally swarmed with children wanting a high five or a piece of chocolate. They visit schools, markets and local infrastructure projects to see how things are going. There are no interrogations or mean faces, just a neighborly walk through their district to check on the locals who sometimes know them by name.

War is brutal, but it's not. The brutality and the atrocities and the terror and the killing and the grief and rage, and the interrogations and mean faces may have happened at some point in the distant, misty past, but that's all over now. It's over, and it's not real. It's the high fives, and the pieces of chocolate in the children's hands, and the neighborly walks and the checks on the locals that are real. Everything else is slander.

1 comment:

Bert said...

I agree with your take on this. For the Vietnam soldier's own words on atrocities and mundane brutality there, I can recommend the old documentary "Hearts and Minds".