Monday, March 26, 2012

Who Serves II


Back after it, telling truth to the preoccupied.  Another look this time at who we pick for our military, how we pick them, and how that all comes out.

My first outbreak on this subject brought down a surprising amount of commentary.  Except for one furtive and congenitally truculent New Hampshire connection -- "Anonymous" -- , who seemed to be surprised that I had a life before I began instructing him in the niceties of modern tennis, the remarks were appreciative.  The veteran radio jock Barry Farber e-mailed me at once and we covered a lot of historical ground on his national show for an hour.  Barry felt that I had retained a lot of brain function, for a liberal.

At the heart of my inquiry here was what the so-called "military obligation" has turned into.  The fact is, I no doubt served in the military because I had to.  From 1940 on, young men in the United States automatically became draft-eligible, and, with the Cold War following on immediately after 1945, a sizable percentage of my generation served.  Once Viet Nam closed over us in 1963-1964 the process intensified, although the deferment game gradually became an issue, as I indicated in my last blog.

The draft was so bitterly resented once we had given it up in Southeast Asia that the regular military was professionalized.  There was no ongoing draft.  Instead, the services attempted to recruit individuals their leaderships hoped they could turn into competent personnel.  Watching all this evolve from our homes in New Hampshire and D.C. and, more recently, Florida, on the neighborhood level, it couldn't have been more apparent that a great many of the kids getting enticed into service were volunteering as a last resort.  There were a lot of high-school drop-outs, youngsters otherwise headed to prison and offered a last-minute choice by some municipal judge, knockabouts with drug problems.  Their peers from solider backgrounds were moving on to colleges and graduate schools, law practices, brokerage offices.

For going on two decades this seemed to be working out because whatever military engagements we got caught up in tended to be quick and dirty -- the intervention in Panama,  Desert Storm, the aerial war against Serbia.  In and out, flatten out the heathen, declare victory and return the national focus fast to getting and spending.  The genuine crisis arrived with the invasion of Iraq, which -- like Viet Nam -- started out as a glorified support action and turned quickly into a bona-fide big league donnybrook, a misguided attempt to muscle our preferences out of a full-scale civil war.  Along with our benighted involvement in Afghanistan -- where we pushed in and left and returned and now are desperate to find some excuse to leave again -- the wars of the last ten years unexpectantly turned expensive, touchy, politically unmanageable, both on the battlefield and around our country.  The effort to cook the numbers by bringing in hundreds of thousands of highly paid "contractors" would show up fast enough in our deficit figures.
The perhaps 2 and a half million soldiers who were feeding in and out of these high-stress battlefields, most of them on "multiple deployments," were too often in no way psychologically equipped to undergo this repeated strain. Many of them cracked, too much "dwell time," as the jargon phrases it, and the catch-all term "post-traumatic stress disorder," the successor to "shell shock," was concocted to cover a wide range of fundamentally undiagnosable explosions of violence.  Nobody was willing to face this, but a lot of the misery stemmed from shortcomings of background and class.  You fill an army with the misfits of a generation, and pretty soon a lot of them are pissing on Taliban corpses and staging the festivities at Abu Graib and slipping out on a quiet evening to blow away some extended Afghan family.  Statistics surfaced recently indicating that more GIs have killed themselves in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last year than have died in combat.  An even greater percentage offed themselves stateside.  With these propensities, it's not that hard for the wrong body of enlisted personnel to undo whatever the commanders thought they were accomplishing.

Recently retired Secretary of Defense Robert Gates remarked on the way out that any future leader in his position who attempted to send an American land army to the Middle East "ought to have his head examined." Not that his opinion has slowed down the likes of Senator McCain, who has been pumping all winter to get those boots onto the ground in Syria.  Hilary Clinton pushed for American troops to lead the charge into Libya. We are historically slow learners.

Send in the boys! The problem is always:  Whose boys?  Which boys and girls are we supposed to send next time, and in whose interests?  If we would think this through the next time we find ourselves tempted to jump, we might survive a few more years as an empire.

Cheerful, no?

Burton Hersh 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Who Serves


At last, we have begun to move along.  This week I want to throw out a few thoughts dealing with our people in the military.  Once, when things seemed a lot simpler than they do today, I was one of them.  From 1957 to 1959 I soldiered as a Private First Class in the Fourth Armored Division, part of the Seventh Army, on station in what was then West Germany.
Service in the military came naturally in my family:  my mother's older brother had been a battle surgeon in a sort of MASH unit in the trenches of the Marne during World War I, a hectic butcher-shop operation that taught him enough about the physiology of the heart to inaugurate a great career as a coronary pioneer.  My father's kid brother was the bombadier and navigator who trained the crew of the Enola Gay.  My mother ran the Home Service Division of the Red Cross in Minneapolis throughout World War II.  We stepped up.

My turn came along when the Cold War was chilliest. The draft was universal.  I got through college, and even a couple of years in Central Europe, initially as a Fulbright Student, but the inevitable Greetings caught up with me in Southern Spain.  I underwent Basic Training at Fort Hood, Texas.  Throughout the following winter I served in Germany as the team chief of an Angry 26, a rolling trip-wire communications unit mounted on the back of a standard deuce-and-a-half truck and camouflaged  in the woodlands on the edge of the Grafenwohr Training Grounds along the Czech border.  We could listen to the artillery of the Red Army, just across the frontier.  As an Acting Sergeant I was in charge of a squad of smart but incorrigible reprobates, a headstrong Mexican-American telegrapher, a street-smart Puerto-Rican interested mostly in running a numbers game back at the post, and a teenaged black pickpocket from Detroit.  The trick was getting them back to base with nobody landing in the stockade.

After two years I got my discharge in Europe and settled down in the Austrian Alps to try and write a book.  In early 1961 I returned to the United States just as the Kennedy administration was settling in.  By the time JFK got shot we were already knee-deep in Viet Nam.  My wife and I found a cheap -- rent-controlled -- apartment in Brooklyn Heights.

Once Lyndon Johnson took over, the American commitment to the war deepened:  at one point 600,000 of our troops were bogged down there, draftees mostly.  I myself gradually became aware that the deferment pattern among the generation at risk, always skewed to favor the ownership classes -- whose children stayed in graduate school or had big families early to avoid service -- was turning into an unreported scandal. One of the first pieces I got published was an essay for the liberal New Leader entitled "Our Unlucky Minority Army."  Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, a man of vision and conviction and an opponent of LBJ, gave me a lot of help.

 A disproportionate number of blacks were among the casualties. My wife and I had resettled into a crossroads village in New Hampshire:  it was painfully evident that the local draft was pulling in the offspring of the working poor, youngsters with no recourse and no connections to keep them out.  They returned badly damaged in most cases.  I remember long sessions with one youngster who had worked for me from time to time, put in his years as a platoon leader in the Vietnamese jungles, and returned with a roaring heroin habit.  I spent many evenings weaning him back onto Bourbon.  He got a sort of job, in the end, along with a life-long disability payment.

By then I was interested in -- writing about -- the early career of Edward Kennedy.  I detail all this in  Edward Kennedy:  An Intimate Biography.  Tossed out of Harvard for cheating, Kennedy had tried to make amends by serving in the Army in France.  He too recognized that the system was increasingly unfair, that combat exposure was turning into a matter of who you were, who you knew.  Typically, Kennedy didn't attempt to butt heads with the administration directly -- he was already sabotaging the poll tax laws and putting together immigration  reform boilerplate for the president behind the scenes.  But he was successful in getting a great many of the draft exemptions and eligibility requirements eliminated and/or redefined.  Pretty soon the children  of the Country Club Crowd were getting their draft notices.  A few started getting shot up; some actually got killed.  Society activists like Silver Star winner John Kerry started speaking at veterans' rallies against the war itself.  Richard Nixon found himself forced to "Vietnamize" the struggle, cut way back on troop deployments, in the end simply cut and run.  Combat was much too dangerous for the propertied classes, the major political contributors wouldn't put up with it.

At unacknowledged policy levels, one revelation that had been hanging there since the First World War was that modern full-scale mass warfare, with entire populations involved, was ultimately ruinous to established societies.  Whole graduating classes from Oxford and Cambridge had been blown to pieces in the trenches of World War I; the effective collapse of the British Empire during subsequent decades was privately  attributed to the destruction of that leadership generation.  The loss of a generation of educated leaders in Germany no doubt led immediately to the barbarism of Nazism.  With weaponry more sophisticated every decade, all these apprehensions converged in the behind-the-scenes decision to "professionalize" the military.  The answer would be a volunteer army, small but superbly trained, available to jump in and fight any battles the politicians might decide to undertake. 

That made it easer, of course, to invade and bomb and authorize a "police action" just short of technical war.  Or go to war itself, if under another name.  Easier to get in.

But harder, it would develop, to get out.  The habitual projection of power is numbing, hallucinogenic.  We cruise on fantasies.

All this led directly to the tragedy of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who shot up 16 Afghan civilians and may well have ended our longest war.  Next time, what that really means.


Burton Hersh


Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Defenders of the Faith


So here we are, about to go to the mat for the last time -- this winter -- with the residual consequences of the JFK assassination.  Each inquiry exacts a price.  "Most 'respectable' academics, journalists, and news organizations don't want to get near the matter, lest they be labeled conspiracy nuts," Russ Baker points out early in his study of the connections among the oil boys, the Bushes and the CIA.  Family of Secrets tracks decades of off-stage plotting intended to bring down successive administrations, what Peter Dale Scott has called the "deep politics" surrounding the murder of JFK.

As competent investigators have picked the Warren Commission Report apart, and writers in this field have been relegated to the badlands of publishing, several establishment publishers have stepped forward in the belated attempt to recusscitate the Warren Commission's moribund conclusions.  Whatever credibility the Report once had got banged around throughout even the comparatively peripheral hearings conducted by Senators Schweiker and Church during the mid-1970s.   The remnants got torn up pretty badly when the Select Committee on Assassinations went to work in the House of Representatives.
The counterattack was mounted in 1993, when Random House published  Gerald Posner's Case Closed.
 Rather than reinforcing the demonstrably skewed evidence the Warren Report depended on, Posner seemed to spend his energy attempting to discredit individual critics of the Report with whom he preferred to disagree -- after months lost poring over the notional material J. Edgar Hoover concocted in FBI archives -- along with key witnesses.  Anthony Summers' important interviews with Guy Banister's secretary, Delphine Roberts, must be discounted entirely because Summers paid her to sit down with him.  And besides, Delphine was Banister's mistress. One of the lead investigators on chief counsel Robert Blakey's staff on the House Committee was the astute Gaeton Fonzi, whom  Posner dismisses as "an unusual choice for an inquiry" because he had written magazine pieces dubious about the Report before and after the House Committee announced its verdict: There had indeed been a conspiracy.  Better a rubber stamp, a skeptic is unconscionable on a staff conducting an investigaztion.  No amount of testimony holds up for Posner.  A mere six witnesses saw Oswald and mob pilot David Ferrie together in Clinton, Louisiana the summer of 1963?  Out of hundreds interviewed?  Not good enough for Posner, no matter what the House Assassination Committee concluded.

In time Posner himself would run into trouble.  Individuals he quoted denied that they had ever talked with the author, while both of the pathologists who had conducted autopsies on JFK's remains insisted they had not said anything like what Posner quoted them as saying.  Kennedy had been shot from the front, a hollow-point bullet had blown out the back of his skull, and the medical staffs in Parkland Hospital in Dallas and at Bethesda agreed about that.

Posner's problems  have compounded.  Repeated charges of plagiarism have haunted him and led to his dismissal as chief investigative reporter for The Daily Beast.  The Warren Report obviously needed a sturdier champion.  In 2007 Norton published Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, the author of Helter Skelter.  At 1612 pages this eight-pound tome is unsuitable for bedtime reading.  Any attempt to verify its contents becomes agonizing because the notes are purportedly to be found in the attached CD, a collating kerfuffle even the most dedicated savant would attempt to duck. 

As I attempted to indicate in my notes for the trade paperback edition of Bobby and J. Edgar, Bugliosi seems to think he has solved the primary inconsistencies through the sort of reasoning he takes to the medical evidence, noting with no small bemusement that "the most honest people in the world can think they saw the darnedest things." Parkland Hospital surgeon Robert McClelland appeared to remain "fixated on this large gaping hole in the back of the president's head," for all Bugliosi's earnest efforts to persuade McClelland that the wound must have been delusional.  Bugliosi tracks virtually hour by hour Oswald's return to New Orleans the summer of 1963 but leaves out Oswald's well-verified dance with Guy Banister, David Ferrie and the rest of the gnomes around whom New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison  would build his case.  Like Posner, Bugliosi's method remains mostly to insult or dismiss his critics rather than come up with even a shred of meaningful counter-evidence.

The truth is, many have come forward.  What happened on November 22, 1963 is reasonably clear.  Why this happened -- whose geopolitical purposes were served, who benefited in the short run, who financed our national nightmare -- even all this is slowly coming into view.

But that must wait for another winter.


Burton Hersh