Monday, November 03, 2003

Open Your Eyes

Author and occasional military affairs correspondent Christian Bauman writes in:

Just now got to Sunday's NYTimes mag. A few points foryour readers about Rieff's article, from a soldier'sperspective, if you're interested in posting it orpart of it...

First, I know I speak for a lot of veterans (on bothsides of the political fence) when I say I can'texpress enough my bitterness at the irony of thecivilians in this administration blatantly ignoringthe advice and requests from the majority of uniformedofficers. If you recall, officers on the ground inMogadishu were demanding for months that to properly execute their assigned missions they needed more personnel, and more equipment. They were overrided, by Les Aspin. These current civilian chicken hawks -- Wolfie, Rummy, Dick -- jumped all over the Clinton administration's shit for this; and Aspin (rightly) resigned.

Oh the sweet, stupid irony: "[General] Shinseki wasn't the only official who thought there were going to be insufficient troops on the ground to police Iraq in the aftermath of war. The lack of adequate personnel in the military's plan...was pointed out by both senior members of the uniformed military and by seasoned peacekeeping officials in the United Nations secretariat."

Only instead of Rumsfeld et al resigning or being fired, it's the soldiers who told him the truth going into this who are retiring or being forced to retire.

Second, one of the things that drives me nuts is when people write "this isn't like Vietnam! Totally different than Vietnam!"

What they fail to understand is that the comparison to Vietnam has nothing to do with the country or the political situation THERE; the comparison is about HERE. The comparison is about a blind administration, talking itself into something and then unable to control the beast they've birthed, unable (and unwilling) to kill it. Rieff hits this perfectly, toward the end of the article: "In Iraq today, there is a steadily increasing disconnect between what the architects of the occupation think they are accomplishing and how Iraqis on the street evaluate postwar progress."

It doesn't make a bit of difference what WE think is going on in Iraq, or how WE think it is going. All that matters is how and what the Iraqis think. And they think we suck.

One of the reasons they think this, the main point of Rieff's article, is the reaction (or nonreaction) of ground troops to certain events, especially in those crucial days right after we arrived in Baghdad.

To Iraqis, the passive standing-by of the foot soldiers while their city was ransacked (except for the guarding of the Oil Ministry) proved in their minds that Americans were interested in only one thing: oil.

A lot of Americans back home, watching this on TV, were asking similar questions: "Why are the soldiers allowing this to happen?" We faced a similar situation when I was in Haiti: American soldiers seeming to stand idle in the face of blatant human rights violations.

Rieff explains this: "Without a plan, without meticulous rehearsal and orders or, at the very least, guidance from higher up the chain of command, the military is all but paralyzed."

This is very important to understand, and very frustrating for those of us who've been on the ground in the lower ranks during these situations. The administration's complete lack of planning for the postwar period not only screwed Iraqis, it essentially screwed our own soldiers; at the least, it puts them in the uncomfortable and frustrating position of having to watch something they could esily stop. At the worst, it actually puts their lives at risk, as we see happening now.

Rieff interviews a battalion commander, who tried as best as he was able to take care of some things on his own: "...he was forced to make decisions on his own on everything from how to deal with looters to whether to distribute food. When I asked him in Baghdad in September whether he had rehearsed this or, indeed, whether he had recieved any instructions from up the chain of command, he simply smiled and shook his head."

This reminds me of a comment former reporter Sara Chayse said on NPR's Fresh Air a few months ago, when she was talking about Afghanistan. She said something along the lines of how average, civilian Americans don't realize that their foreign policy is often set these days by privates. As a former private, I knew exactly what she was talking about: without a plan, without clear and concise guidance and orders, 19-year-olds with rifles have to make the decisions, and their reaction or lack thereof will dictate how the locals feel about America as a whole. This is exactly what is happening in Iraq right now: our foreign policy and how we are viewed there is not being guided by Washington, as it should be. It is shaped -- some days for the better, some days for the worse -- by soldiers who are simply trying to react and to survive.


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