Friday, June 25, 2010

The runaway general and his war (1)

Scene from Sir Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe (1819)

Obama has given no sign so far that he intends to change his Afghanistan War strategy in the wake of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's departure.

But I hope the attention that was brought to the war by Michael Hastings' Rolling Stone The Runaway General 06/22/2010 will continue. The article itself is interesting beyond McChrystal's career-derailing indiscretions in his remarks and in those of his closest associates.

One interesting spinoff aspect of the article is that it led Politico to slip up and tell an important truth about the corrupt state of American journalism today. Jay Rosen gives a rundown on it in The Politico Opens the Kimono. And then Pretends it Never Happened. PressThink 06/24/2010. (I got into the act a bit in the comments over Laura Rozen's being bylined on the original article. Jay left a note there in my comments saying, "Your link broke my system, and then it didn't work, so I had to remove it. But I recall seeing Laura Rozen's by-line on the article too, and then I covinced myself I must have been wrong." And he added, "'Laura Rozen contributed to this report,' it now says on the article.")

In the Rolling Stone article, Hastings relates this episode:

Despite the tragedies and miscues, McChrystal has issued some of the strictest directives to avoid civilian casualties that the U.S. military has ever encountered in a war zone. It's "insurgent math," as he calls it – for every innocent person you kill, you create 10 new enemies. He has ordered convoys to curtail their reckless driving, put restrictions on the use of air power and severely limited night raids. He regularly apologizes to Hamid Karzai when civilians are killed, and berates commanders responsible for civilian deaths. "For a while," says one U.S. official, "the most dangerous place to be in Afghanistan was in front of McChrystal after a 'civ cas' incident." The ISAF command has even discussed ways to make not killing into something you can win an award for: There's talk of creating a new medal for "courageous restraint," a buzzword that's unlikely to gain much traction in the gung-ho culture of the U.S. military.

But however strategic they may be, McChrystal's new marching orders have caused an intense backlash among his own troops. Being told to hold their fire, soldiers complain, puts them in greater danger. "Bottom line?" says a former Special Forces operator who has spent years in Iraq and Afghanistan. "I would love to kick McChrystal in the nuts. His rules of engagement put soldiers' lives in even greater danger. Every real soldier will tell you the same thing."

In March, McChrystal traveled to Combat Outpost JFM – a small encampment on the outskirts of Kandahar – to confront such accusations from the troops directly. It was a typically bold move by the general. Only two days earlier, he had received an e-mail from Israel Arroyo, a 25-year-old staff sergeant who asked McChrystal to go on a mission with his unit. "I am writing because it was said you don't care about the troops and have made it harder to defend ourselves," Arroyo wrote.

Within hours, McChrystal responded personally: "I'm saddened by the accusation that I don't care about soldiers, as it is something I suspect any soldier takes both personally and professionally – at least I do. But I know perceptions depend upon your perspective at the time, and I respect that every soldier's view is his own." Then he showed up at Arroyo's outpost and went on a foot patrol with the troops – not some bullshit photo-op stroll through a market, but a real live operation in a dangerous war zone. [my emphasis]
The large numbers of civilian casualties has been a scandal for years. McChrystal's attempt to curtail them was necessary, but how effective it has been remains to be seen. The medal for showing courageous restraint sounds like a totally bogus propaganda line to me.

I was struck by the general's going on a foot patrol with these troops. But not because it showed his courage or concern for the foot soldiers under his command. I was struck because it reminded me so much of the very bad habit of Confederate generals during the Civil War of literally leading their troops into battle out of the Southern sense of chivalry that they had gotten from past tradition and from Walter Scott novels. Stonewall Jackson was the most famous of the Rebel generals killed that way, in his case by "friendly fire" from his own troops. But the loss of senior officers because of their intentionally exposing themselves directly to heavy fighting partially deprived the Confederacy of one of their most significant advantages, the experienced senior military leadership on their side.

Taking Hastings word for it that this was a serious patrol and not a photo-op, I have wonder what the guy was thinking. But it fits in with the seemingly cowboy and/or frat-boy attitude that Hastings describes in his article among McChrystal and his senior staff.

Hastings continues the story:

Six weeks later, just before McChrystal returned from Paris, the general received another e-mail from Arroyo. A 23-year-old corporal named Michael Ingram – one of the soldiers McChrystal had gone on patrol with – had been killed by an IED a day earlier. It was the third man the 25-member platoon had lost in a year, and Arroyo was writing to see if the general would attend Ingram's memorial service. "He started to look up to you," Arroyo wrote. McChrystal said he would try to make it down to pay his respects as soon as possible.

The night before the general is scheduled to visit Sgt. Arroyo's platoon for the memorial, I arrive at Combat Outpost JFM to speak with the soldiers he had gone on patrol with. JFM is a small encampment, ringed by high blast walls and guard towers. Almost all of the soldiers here have been on repeated combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and have seen some of the worst fighting of both wars. But they are especially angered by Ingram's death. His commanders had repeatedly requested permission to tear down the house where Ingram was killed, noting that it was often used as a combat position by the Taliban. But due to McChrystal's new restrictions to avoid upsetting civilians, the request had been denied. "These were abandoned houses," fumes Staff Sgt. Kennith Hicks. "Nobody was coming back to live in them."

One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given. "Patrol only in areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force," the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that's like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won't have to make arrests. "Does that make any fucking sense?" asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. "We should just drop a fucking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself: What are we doing here?"

The rules handed out here are not what McChrystal intended – they've been distorted as they passed through the chain of command – but knowing that does nothing to lessen the anger of troops on the ground. "Fuck, when I came over here and heard that McChrystal was in charge, I thought we would get our fucking gun on," says Hicks, who has served three tours of combat. "I get COIN. I get all that. McChrystal comes here, explains it, it makes sense. But then he goes away on his bird, and by the time his directives get passed down to us through Big Army, they're all fucked up – either because somebody is trying to cover their ass, or because they just don't understand it themselves. But we're fucking losing this thing." [my emphasis]
Obviously, it's impossible for the reader to make any real judgment on whether the particular decision to tear down that particular house was correct or not. And it's also impossible to draw general conclusions from that one anecdote.

But this story is different from a lot of the battlefield accounts I've seen in a couple of ways. These are soldiers who had direct contact with then-commanding general McChrystal, with him even going out on a real patrol with them. And Hastings doesn't try to tell a pleasing stock story for the home front of plucky soldiers risking their lives for their country and proud to do so. And these soldiers not only sound bitter toward the general with whom they are personally acquainted. (Hastings was right to quote them anonymously because obscene criticism by grunts of their commanding general given to a reporter for publication could get them court-martialed - unlike the senior officers that were trashing their civilian superiors but to whom Obama is obvious willing to apply his Look Forward Not Back program.)

It's also striking that even with personal interaction with McChrystal, Hastings' account makes it sound like the soldiers in that unit weren't thinking of their mission as "winning hearts and minds", in the Vietnam War-era phrases that the Pentagon now uses for the Afghanistan War. They understood that their purpose there was to "get our fucking gun on". It makes me wonder if the ones expressing that attitude weren't already deep into the attitude that set in for many GIs during the Vietnam War: let's shoot anybody who looks vaguely threatening and just live to get back home. War weariness? A collapse of discipline?

Like I said, we can't draw broad conclusions from that one incident. But given everything else I know about the war and the Pentagon's treatment of the soldiers and their families, it does make me wonder.


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