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September 17, 2007

Sign of The Times

The NYT wises up--rejoins the Twenty-First Century.

Posted by stevemack at 07:42 PM | Comments (1085) | TrackBack

September 13, 2007

A Tribute to Fallen Soldiers

Last month a group American soldiers in Iraq penned an extraordinarily insightful op-ed on the futility of the war effort. Yesterday comes word that two of them, Sgt. Omar Mora and Sgt. Yance Gray were killed in action. The following is that op-ed in its entirity.

August 19, 2007


The War as We Saw It



VIEWED from Iraq at the tail end of a 15-month deployment, the political debate in Washington is indeed
surreal. Counterinsurgency is, by definition, a competition between insurgents and counterinsurgents for
the control and support of a population. To believe that Americans, with an occupying force that long ago
outlived its reluctant welcome, can win over a recalcitrant local population and win this counterinsurgency
is far-fetched. As responsible infantrymen and noncommissioned officers with the 82nd Airborne Division
soon heading back home, we are skeptical of recent press coverage portraying the conflict as increasingly
manageable and feel it has neglected the mounting civil, political and social unrest we see every day.
(Obviously, these are our personal views and should not be seen as official within our chain of command.)

The claim that we are increasingly in control of the battlefields in Iraq is an assessment arrived at through
a flawed, American-centered framework. Yes, we are militarily superior, but our successes are offset by
failures elsewhere. What soldiers call the “battle space” remains the same, with changes only at the
margins. It is crowded with actors who do not fit neatly into boxes: Sunni extremists, Al Qaeda terrorists,
Shiite militiamen, criminals and armed tribes. This situation is made more complex by the questionable
loyalties and Janus-faced role of the Iraqi police and Iraqi Army, which have been trained and armed at
United States taxpayers’ expense.

A few nights ago, for example, we witnessed the death of one American soldier and the critical wounding
of two others when a lethal armor-piercing explosive was detonated between an Iraqi Army checkpoint
and a police one. Local Iraqis readily testified to American investigators that Iraqi police and Army
officers escorted the triggermen and helped plant the bomb. These civilians highlighted their own
predicament: had they informed the Americans of the bomb before the incident, the Iraqi Army, the police
or the local Shiite militia would have killed their families.

As many grunts will tell you, this is a near-routine event. Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army
commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that
battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate
men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias.
Similarly, Sunnis, who have been underrepresented in the new Iraqi armed forces, now find themselves
forming militias, sometimes with our tacit support. Sunnis recognize that the best guarantee they may
have against Shiite militias and the Shiite-dominated government is to form their own armed bands. We
arm them to aid in our fight against Al Qaeda.

However, while creating proxies is essential in winning a counterinsurgency, it requires that the proxies
are loyal to the center that we claim to support. Armed Sunni tribes have indeed become effective
surrogates, but the enduring question is where their loyalties would lie in our absence. The Iraqi
government finds itself working at cross purposes with us on this issue because it is justifiably fearful that
Sunni militias will turn on it should the Americans leave.

In short, we operate in a bewildering context of determined enemies and questionable allies, one where
the balance of forces on the ground remains entirely unclear. (In the course of writing this article, this fact
became all too clear: one of us, Staff Sergeant Murphy, an Army Ranger and reconnaissance team leader,
was shot in the head during a “time-sensitive target acquisition mission” on Aug. 12; he is expected to
survive and is being flown to a military hospital in the United States.) While we have the will and the
resources to fight in this context, we are effectively hamstrung because realities on the ground require
measures we will always refuse — namely, the widespread use of lethal and brutal force.

Given the situation, it is important not to assess security from an American-centered perspective. The
ability of, say, American observers to safely walk down the streets of formerly violent towns is not a
resounding indicator of security. What matters is the experience of the local citizenry and the future of our
counterinsurgency. When we take this view, we see that a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure
and view us as an occupation force that has failed to produce normalcy after four years and is increasingly
unlikely to do so as we continue to arm each warring side.

Coupling our military strategy to an insistence that the Iraqis meet political benchmarks for reconciliation
is also unhelpful. The morass in the government has fueled impatience and confusion while providing no
semblance of security to average Iraqis. Leaders are far from arriving at a lasting political settlement. This
should not be surprising, since a lasting political solution will not be possible while the military situation
remains in constant flux.

The Iraqi government is run by the main coalition partners of the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance,
with Kurds as minority members. The Shiite clerical establishment formed the alliance to make sure its
people did not succumb to the same mistake as in 1920: rebelling against the occupying Western force
(then the British) and losing what they believed was their inherent right to rule Iraq as the majority. The
qualified and reluctant welcome we received from the Shiites since the invasion has to be seen in that
historical context. They saw in us something useful for the moment.

Now that moment is passing, as the Shiites have achieved what they believe is rightfully theirs. Their next
task is to figure out how best to consolidate the gains, because reconciliation without consolidation risks
losing it all. Washington’s insistence that the Iraqis correct the three gravest mistakes we made — de-
Baathification, the dismantling of the Iraqi Army and the creation of a loose federalist system of
government — places us at cross purposes with the government we have committed to support.

Political reconciliation in Iraq will occur, but not at our insistence or in ways that meet our benchmarks.
It will happen on Iraqi terms when the reality on the battlefield is congruent with that in the political
sphere. There will be no magnanimous solutions that please every party the way we expect, and there will
be winners and losers. The choice we have left is to decide which side we will take. Trying to please every party in the conflict — as we do now — will only ensure we are hated by all in the long run.

At the same time, the most important front in the counterinsurgency, improving basic social and economic conditions, is the one on which we have failed most miserably. Two million Iraqis are in refugee camps in bordering countries. Close to two million more are internally displaced and now fill many urban slums. Cities lack regular electricity, telephone services and sanitation. “Lucky” Iraqis live in gated communities barricaded with concrete blast walls that provide them with a sense of communal claustrophobia rather than any sense of security we would consider normal.

In a lawless environment where men with guns rule the streets, engaging in the banalities of life has become a death-defying act. Four years into our occupation, we have failed on every promise, while we have substituted Baath Party tyranny with a tyranny of Islamist, militia and criminal violence. When the primary preoccupation of average Iraqis is when and how they are likely to be killed, we can hardly feel smug as we hand out care packages. As an Iraqi man told us a few days ago with deep resignation, “We need security, not free food.”

In the end, we need to recognize that our presence may have released Iraqis from the grip of a tyrant, but that it has also robbed them of their self-respect. They will soon realize that the best way to regain dignity is to call us what we are — an army of occupation — and force our withdrawal.

Until that happens, it would be prudent for us to increasingly let Iraqis take center stage in all matters, to come up with a nuanced policy in which we assist them from the margins but let them resolve their differences as they see fit. This suggestion is not meant to be defeatist, but rather to highlight our pursuit of incompatible policies to absurd ends without recognizing the incongruities.

We need not talk about our morale. As committed soldiers, we will see this mission through.

Buddhika Jayamaha is an Army specialist. Wesley D. Smith is a sergeant. Jeremy Roebuck is a sergeant. Omar Mora is a sergeant. Edward Sandmeier is a sergeant. Yance T. Gray is a staff sergeant. Jeremy A. Murphy is a staff sergeant.

More Articles in Opinion »

Posted by stevemack at 04:22 AM | Comments (101) | TrackBack

September 11, 2007

William Jefferson Clinton: Watermellon Man

Ryan Lizza has an excellent piece in The New Yorker on Hillary's attempt to embrace the legacy of the Clinton years without being overshadowed by the ex-president and his mega-personality. It contains this little nugget of an anecdote that captures, I think, Bill's real political genius--his joy of campaigning.

Thirty-seven years later, on the Sunday before Labor Day, the ex-President and First Lady stood in a barn at the Hopkinton State Fair, in New Hampshire, and inspected the finalists in an annual pumpkin-growing contest—which inevitably led to talk about watermelons. Bill, in a pink checked shirt and white pants, reminisced about the enormous melons of his Arkansas youth as he admired the champion gourd, which, at a thousand and four pounds, sat triumphantly before them; he asked the grower, Bruce Whittier, detailed questions about the art and science of raising oversized fruit. Hillary smiled and chatted politely, but she seemed ready to move on to the cows and sheep.

Bill, now an expert, was asked how much water pumpkins need. “No, no, don’t tell them,” Hillary said. “It’s a trade secret.” Striking a pensive pose, arms folded across his chest, Bill paused for a second before overruling his wife. “Way over fifty gallons a day,” he said, with genuine astonishment. Then, as he began to talk about the differences between watermelon- and pumpkin-growing, Hillary turned away to talk to the governor of New Hampshire and eventually left her husband behind in the pumpkin stall.

She was halfway to Jeff Jordan’s Sheep Barn when Bill’s ruminations turned into a full-fledged press conference. “I don’t know what the latest record was, but the last record I saw was, like, two hundred and seventy-something pounds,” the former President explained, as reporters thrust recorders into his face. “So that’s like a quarter of the size of the winner here, a little more than a quarter. But that’s a huge watermelon.” Returning to the message of the day—that Hillary knows when to “stand her ground” and when to “find common ground”—he went on to offer a startling comparison between fruit competitions and serving in the White House: “When you grow a big pumpkin or you’re in a watermelon contest, if you give it too much water and the skin breaks, you’re eliminated. And if you give it too little somebody else beats you, because they got a bigger melon or a bigger pumpkin. So it’s like, at the end, and in very tense circumstances, there are these constant judgment calls. You know, it’s kind of like being President—you want to make it as big as you can without breaking the skin.” With that, Bill Clinton may have aptly described his role in his wife’s campaign.

You just don't fake a love of state fairs, watermellons--or the people who grow them.

Posted by stevemack at 05:02 AM | Comments (603) | TrackBack


Congrats to Vanessa over at The Colonic on her 100th post! For a sampling of her unique brand of commentary, here's a couple of my favorites here and here.

Posted by stevemack at 04:47 AM | Comments (564) | TrackBack

September 10, 2007

Today's Must Read:

From TPM

Iraqi Civilian Casualties: 2007 More Deadly Than 2006
By Spencer Ackerman - September 10, 2007, 11:49 AM

It took some time and effort, but, with the aid of TPM readers, we've obtained two complete lists of monthly Iraqi civilian casualties from January 2006 forward. Taking these numbers on their own terms, they do not bear out the claims made by the Bush administration and U.S. military that the surge has reduced Iraqi civilian casualties. Comparing each month's death toll in 2007 to the death toll from that same month in 2006, the numbers show that surge has not made Iraq safer for the civilian population. By some measurements, Iraqis are in greater danger than a year ago.

Posted by stevemack at 08:56 AM | Comments (566) | TrackBack

September 07, 2007

U.S. Policy: Pakistan

Here's a must read op-ed from today's L.A. Times. In "Leave Pakistan Alone," Rajan Menon shows how, once again, the narrow pursuit of US interests ultimately undermines . . . US long term interests. Here's the lede, but check out the whole piece:

As Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, struggles to retain power, the United States finds itself in a familiar predicament, one that illustrates a recurring pathology in its foreign policy. Having yet again cast its lot with a strongman, Washington is confounded now that his political position has become precarious. It's the Anastasio Somoza, shah of Iran, Ferdinand Marcos dynamic in a different guise. Though Musharraf won't be forced into exile like those friends of Washington, the best he can hope for is to survive the current turmoil with vastly reduced authority.

The Bush administration's problem in Pakistan is that it has had a Musharraf policy but not one that engages the interests and aspirations of Pakistan's citizenry. Pakistanis may have welcomed Musharraf in 1999 when, as army chief, he overthrew the inept and corrupt government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but that enthusiasm has evaporated.

Posted by stevemack at 08:13 AM | Comments (505) | TrackBack

September 05, 2007

Gored by the Press

In the October 2007 edition of Vanity Fair, Evgenia Peretz revisits the old story of Al Gore’s trashing by the MSM in 2000, caricaturing him as a pompous, pathological exaggerator. The story’s been done before. Those who care know that he never claimed to have invented the internet, never bragged that he and Tipper were the models for the novel Love Story, and never claimed he discovered Love Canal. What Peretz brings to the story is, one, a tiny bit of commentary from the heretofore silent victim—Gore himself; and, two, a (rather tepid) bit of apologetic soul searching on the part of some shitty but influential journalists.

The Love Canal story is neatly representative of the whole thing:

On December 1, 1999, Connolly—and Seelye—misquoted Gore in a damning way. Their error was picked up elsewhere and repeated, and snowballed into a political nightmare. Gore was speaking to a group of students at Concord High School, in New Hampshire, about how young people could effect change. He described a letter he had received as a congressman in 1978 from a girl in Toone, Tennessee, about how her father and grandfather had gotten mysteriously ill. He had looked into the matter and found that the town was a toxic-waste site. He went on:
"I looked around the country for other sites like that. I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal. I had the first hearing on that issue and Toone, Tennessee. That was the one you didn't hear of, but that was the one that started it all.… We passed a major national law to clean up hazardous dumpsites, and we had new efforts to stop the practices that ended up poisoning water around the country.… It all happened because one high-school student got involved."

Jill Hoffman, a high-school senior in the audience who was helping to film the event, says, "I remember thinking, I really, really like what he has to say." But what Seelye and Connolly zeroed in on was Gore yet again claiming credit for something he didn't do—"discovering" Love Canal (which was, in fact, discovered by the people who lived there). In addition to mischaracterizing his somewhat ambiguous statement, they misquoted him, claiming he said, "I was the one that started it all," instead of "that was the one that started it all." The next day, Seelye offered a friendlier account of Gore's visit to the school. Connolly repeated the misquote. In an article titled "First 'Love Story,' Now Love Canal," she wrote:

The man who mistakenly claimed to have inspired the movie "Love Story" and to have invented the Internet says he didn't quite mean to say he discovered a toxic waste site when he said at a high school forum Tuesday in New Hampshire: "I found a little place in upstate New York called Love Canal." Gore went on to brag about holding the "first hearing on that issue" and said "I was the one that started it all."

The story picked up steam. "I was the one that started it all" became a quote featured in U.S. News & World Report and was repeated on the chat shows. On ABC's This Week, host George Stephanopoulos said, "Gore, again, revealed his Pinocchio problem. Says he was the model for Love Story, created the Internet. And this time he sort of discovered Love Canal." On two consecutive nights of Hardball, Chris Matthews brought up this same trio as examples of Gore's "delusionary" thinking. "What is it, the Zelig guy who keeps saying, 'I was the main character in Love Story. I invented the Internet. I invented Love Canal.…' It reminds me of Snoopy thinking he's the Red Baron." "It became part of the vocabulary," Matthews says today. "I don't think it had a thunderous impact on the voters." He concedes, however, that such stories were repeated too many times in the media.

Seelye would later write a story with John Broder under the headline questions of veracity have long dogged gore and provided "familiar and fairly trivial examples," including his "taking credit for inventing the Internet or being the model for … Love Story." Asked today why those discredited allegations of misstatements were included, Seelye says, "Probably because they were ones that everyone had heard of. We did write that they were 'trivial,' but if that was the case, we should have left them out or debunked them."

What’s particularly galling, however, is the mea culpa that comes a few paragraphs later:

Katharine Seelye, who still writes about national politics for The New York Times, has had time to reflect on her work: "I'm sure there were times my phrasing could have been better—you're doing this on the fly. Sometimes you're just looking for a different way to describe something that you have to write about over and over again," she says. "But I think overall my coverage was tough-minded. A presidential campaign is for the most important, hardest job in the world. Shouldn't the coverage be tough?" Connolly, still a staff writer at the Post but on a leave of absence, maintains that "the Washington Post political team, myself and a dozen other journalists, approached the Gore campaign no differently than any other—with aggressive, thorough, objective reporting."
What truly surprises me about this self-serving bullshit is not that a journalist for a highly respected top-tier paper would attempt to cover her ass in such a pathetic way, but that the entire industry seems so utterly unaware of the problematics of their craft. This isn’t a question of objectivity vs bias. Rather, as anybody with an ounce of understanding knows, for the past twenty years or so, the focus of serious concern among thoughtful journalists is not the prospect that one’s biases may get in the way (which still, of course, happens), but the role meta narratives play in shaping a journalist’s work even when they feel themselves to be completely neutral. It has become an academic commonplace. The prospect that Seelye and company are not bright enough, even after seven years of reflection, to see that they were participating in the creation of a cartoon the effect of which would be to undermine the democratic process is very unerving.

Posted by stevemack at 07:14 PM | Comments (22) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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