Wednesday, July 27, 2011

On Embedding and Coopting


It had been my intention to fire one of these things into the blogosphere no more often than every week or ten days, tops.  Also, I hope to deal in subjects, ideas, not personalities.  I focused in one blog not long ago on the distinguished and courageous journalist Dexter Filkins not to defame him in any way, but rather to suggest that his years as an "embedded" reporter for The New York Times prevented him from asking the large questions -- especially about the economics underlying our occupation of Iraq -- which might have helped his readership (and his editors) better comprehend the rationale behind our involvement.  Free of The Times, Filkins judges our involvement in the area as a disaster of "mismanagement."

That is certainly a start. Even now the motivations that pushed us into that feckless project are becoming clear enough -- we went into Iraq because it looked like easy pickins on the ground, because important players in our military-industrial complex were running out of work and needed a secure base in the Middle East, and because there was all that oil.

If that sounds like leftie talk to students of this blog, what can I say?  A couple of times recently Steve Mumford has dressed me down for impugning the integrity of our brave journalists. Mr. Mumford, I discover on Google, was himself an embedded artist in Iraq, a painter of recruiting-poster-style renditions of street scenes and battle tableaux during our years of embroilment. Having been himself embedded, Mr. Mumford is no doubt qualified to speak for others on whom such unavoidable limitations have been imposed.  I welcome his input.

But to dismiss my observations as the sputterings of a "leftie" suggests that Mumford has skipped his homework.  I have been an independent writer and journalist my entire professional life.  Independent politically and independent intellectually.  I've been under attack from the left for going after the Kennedy family in Bobby and J. Edgar by suggesting that they cherished Joe McCarthy (Eunice almost married him) and going "soft on Hoover" (David Corn in the Times).  Right-wing commentators -- and the Agency itself -- were infuriated by my insistence in The Old Boys that the Eisenhower-era CIA was duped unceasingly by the KGB, which planted virtually every scrap of information about the Sovier Union on which the Agency based its appraisals.  In fact, Dick Helms was my source for a lot of that, and James Jesus Angleton remained a friend until the day he died.

Mumford suggests that I am "surprisingly thin-skinned" about "the term 'leftie'; I didn't call you a commie after all.'"  I suppose; I didn't call Mumford a Nazi, which no doubt covers me with glory.  As far as I am concerned, that is not the point.  Mistakes are mistakes, on every level.  At the recent Republican candidates' debate almost every participant pushed to get out of Afghanistan, faster.  Ron Paul -- who has the credentials -- wanted to clear out yesterday.  This is about initiatives, not labels.

Good luck to all of you in August,


Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Are We In Afghanistan -- #2


Back at it.  I am in what might very well turn out to be the last week of drafting a new novel, and so am a bit preoccupied with that.  Still, a number of you have responded to my remarks about our involvement in Afghanistan and the reportage by the esteemed Dexter Filkins, so let's do another round.  This is an important subject.

My St. Petersburg friend, the legendary educator Merle Allshouse, observes about my having remarked that Filkins avoided answering my questions about who profited from the oil liftings in Iraq throughout the war and who will inherit the fifteen or sixteen massive airports we are about to leave behind with the comment  "Yes, and sometimes it takes a lot of courage and maturity to say 'I don't know....'" The point is, I wasn't questioning Filkins' courage.  I was questioning his enterprise.  After stumbling into a war which Vice President Cheney assured us we would be able to underwrite out of the proceeds from selling the oil in the region, it would seem to me that an alert reporter might wonder how that was panning out.  Even if his editors in New York weren't asking.

As another of my correspondents, Bob Dardenne, points out, even "The NYT has shown itself to be quite capable of towing the party line -- the lead-up to the Iraq war, for example, biting, as did most mainstream media, on the WMD issue and later apologizing for it."  Too true, and to be respected, except for the fact that all through the leadup to the invasion international inspectors were combing out Iraq and not finding the weaponry we preferred to imagine existed.there.  My own CIA contacts certainly thought the WMD claims were bogus at the time.  Where were the American media?

Another reader, Steve Mumford, opens cheerfully by asserting that "I think your reasoning is simplicistic, and I assume that you have never worked as an embedded journalist yourself."  He feels that reporters cannot get it right "all the time."  While I have never been "embedded," I did spend several years in the military running a mobile radio station in the tripwire system along the Czech border and translating NATO documents during the fiercest years of the Cold War.  I worked with journalists and German functionaries regularly, and ultimately had a long career myself as a magazine journalist.  To maintain that journalists are justified in avoiding asking embarrassing -- to Washington -- questions because the work is dangerous or because they can't be everywhere at once begs significant issues.  Neither Ernie Pyle nor I.F. Stone were ubiquitous, yet both homed in on problems in such a way as to compel public solutions.  Mr. Mumford concludes that he "tires of lefties casually dismissing the courageous and difficult work of reporters" as "morally compromised because they were embedded."  Who said anything like that? To dismiss someone with whom one disagrees as a "leftie" is as telltale as dismissing a conservative critic as a "fascist."  The term reveals all you need to know about the writer.

Another good friend, Richard Cummings, attributes our current embroilment to the fact that "After the Russians were forced to withdraw, America did nothing to help rebuild the country, which led to civil war." There is no doubt some truth to this.  The larger question -- which the polls suggest Americans are now prepared to answer -- is whether any appropriate amount of military or "nation-building" effort in many, many parts of the third world is going to accomplish much more than bankrupt us and leave us with hundreds of thousands of terribly damaged youngsters to nurse at public expense through the rest of their lives.  Can we afford this?

Best to y'all.  Keep writing.


Thursday, July 14, 2011


And Countrywomen.   And Countrydogs and Manatees and Cockatoos and anybody else interested.  I always use Countrymen as a generic term.  It means:  You All.

My subject for today is the working press, its importance to us all as well as its increasing vulnerability and sometimes its foibles.  I expect to focus here on one significant member of our Establisment of Scribblers, the much-celebrated newsman Dexter Filkins.

A little background first. For a number of years Filkins covered the Near East for The New York Times, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a lot of what we were able to discover about what was actually going on in that tortured corner of the world we found out through Filkins.  A brave and comparatively independent-minded reporter, Filkins was regularly "embedded" with our forces in the region, and a great deal of his reporting dealt with the stresses and triumphs and repeated acts of bravery that characterized our grunts on the ground. Filkins was also able to find his way among wartorn Iraqi civilians, especially in the villages, and his best reporting offers dozens of vignettes full of snapshots of their lives, their gutted houses and destroyed careers and hopelessness about the future.  Many of his most astute observations made it into his very effective book of essays, "The Forever War."

While he was working for the Times, and needed Department of Defense accreditation to get anywhere near the action, the tone of Filkins' reporting was, for the most part, affirmative.  Upending Sadam Hussein was justifiable, our military on the ground and their commanders in the Pentagon knew what they were doing, this would be a long slog but no doubt a necessary one.  Embedded once more in Afghanistan, Filkins kept a sharp eye out but beat the mandatory drum. 

Now, liberated finally from the policy guidelines of the Times, Filkins has moved over and become a staff writer for the somewhat less establishment-obligated New Yorker.  Filkins wrote the opening bit in the recent July 4, 2011 Talk of the Town. Paragraph by paragraph his observations amount to a litany of the hopelessness of our predicament, summing up the rotten prospects of a hopeless enterprise and concluding by quoting Obama's statement that "These long wars will come to a responsible end."  "That's an appropriately tortured construction for two badly managed occupations," Filkins concludes.  "As a prediction for Afghanistan, though, it seems more like a prayer."

I lay this out not to emphasize particularly that Filkins has moved over from the boosters to the jackals but rather to suggest how the system seems to work.  To be embedded is to be closed off, obligated, expected to tow the propaganda line.  Moreover, it implies that the focus of one's reporting will remain on subjects and approaches satisfactory to the military-industrial propaganda mill.

I am reminded of all this reminiscing about my own two recent brushes with Filkins.  It happens that I am a member of the Tampa affiliate of the Council on Foreign Relations.  Filkins has a close friend in the Bay area, and twice -- in 2007, I believe, and 2010 -- he has been generous enough to address our group.  He is an off-the-cuff speaker, personable but inclined to stick to his subject.  After both presentations I had the chance to ask him questions.  In 2007, with the overall military situation in Iraq under control, there were reports that three million barrels of oil a day were being lifted in the southern oil fields there.  Who was doing the lifting, I asked, and where was the money -- oil was approaching the $100-a-barrel  price, which suggested a $300,000,000 daily gross for somebody -- where was all that money going?

He didn't really know, Filkins was free to admit.  That was not something his bosses in the Times newsroom had asked him to look into.

By 2010 Filkins was based in Afghanistan.  Iraq was winding down, we were pulling out.  Filkins was quite straightforward about decrying the shifting and increasingly treacherous deal-making that characterized the Karzai regime -- a reflection of State Department leaks to keep the pressure up on the Afghan president.  I asked about Iraq.  We had built, according to the papers, fifteen city-sized bases in Iraq with mile-long runways to accommodate the supertankers and heavy bombers the Pentagon seemed to think we would require in the region.  These installations cost the American taxpayer billions, probably hundreds of billions of dollars.  Once we had withdrawn, which individuals or government entities in Iraq were going to wind up with these enormously valuable properties?

Filkins didn't know.  That wasn't in the playbook either.

I am taking the opportunity to dig into all of this not to embarrass Filkins, who is one of the best of his breed, but to suggest how our system manages the news and accordingly invites terrible initiatives and reckless decisions every one of us has to pay for later. We don't ask the right questions until it is too late.