Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Who Serves V


Again, unexpectedly, a few more comments dealing with the structure of our military.  This was not anticipated, but several of your comments in response to my earlier observations seemed so on point, so thought-provoking, that I felt they deserved another look along with my take on their take.

One came from my pal Vern Farnsworth, who quotes a retired Special Ops Colonel with whom he serves on a local board as having concluded that "If a nation does not want to change, it will not happen."  In any case, "Don't send a boy to do a man's job."  My own exchanges with senior brass over the years suggest that this apprehension about the vulnerability of the raw volunteers who fight our wars is widespread among professional soldiers.

Another friend, MA Fairbank -- Mark, I assume -- from the New Hampshire pole of our family enterprise wonders:  "Is Imperialism so different from Nation Building?"  He cites "Roman legionnaires in Gaul and Albion, Crusaders in Constantanople, British regulars in Bombay, U.S. Marines in the Phillipines" as engaged in "nation building to serve our national interest" and equates this with "putting a state's force into a foreign land to secure vital resources."

Mark is an astute fellow, but it seems to me that you don't have to be much of a historian to bridle at the assumptions behind this.  Tooth-and-claw imperialism has almost always had disastrous long-term consequences for the imperial power, from the appearance of the Goths at the ramparts of Rome in 552 to the rather lame attempts by spokesmen for the Obama administration to explain away our frantic behind-the-scenes rescheduling to slink out of Afghanistan ASAP.  Native populations invariably prefer their identity, however brutal and unsanitary it may appear to us.

All this is particularly self-evident in the Muslim world.  In 1187 the Crusaders took a fatal hammering from the armies of Saladin, and Arab propagandists still hobgoblinize every gesture by the West as the resurgence of the Crusader spirit.  We do keep trying, though.  In The Old Boys I track the maneuvering of the early CIA as its ace in the Middle East, Kermit Roosevelt, installed Nasser, and then  a more compliant government in Syria, and finally subverted a working democracy in Iran to reinstate the Shah in a series of maneuvers intended primarily to benefit the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the predecessor of British Petroleum.  We turned Iran into our primary base in the Middle East and subsequently lost everything when the Ayatollahs swept into power in 1979.  I interviewed Roosevelt repeatedly; he himself had been a professional historian -- he taught at Harvard as a young man.  I found Roosevelt stricken with a degree of historical remorse that made his last years acutely depressing.  He had turned down the chance to subvert Guatemala in the interests of the United Fruit Company; that, at least, ultimately provided him a measure of solace.

One last comment definitely needs to be recognized.  One of my several Anonymous correspondents points out that warfare today has changed radically, and is characterized now by "vanished battle lines and a 'nobility deficit.'"  Today death can come very quickly and unexpectedly from an IED or a child with a bomb beneath her rags.  Best to machine-gun everybody, assume the natives you are there to rescue hate you and take preventative action.  With reflexes like that it is very hard to build a nation or live with yourself afterwards. Read this response in its entirety among the comments on this blog.

Columnist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times has taken an interest in the predicament of soldiers returning from our hapless wars in the Middle East.  He points out that, along with a heightened suicide rate among soldiers in the battle zones, the number of veterans coming home who ultimately kill themselves is stunning, @6500 a year.  Kristof suspects that this is the result of traumatic brain injuries -- too close to too many roadside bombs, which produces long-term trauma to the tissues of the brain.  This is a terrible add-on  for the luckless handful of Americans who fight our wars to absorb.  Meanwhile, pressure builds on the political right to cut back the facilities available at veterans' hospitals and save more money -- cut taxes -- for its wealthy constituents.

If imperialism has its price, these brain-damaged veterans are dealing with the first round of bills coming due.  The rest of us are certain to confront the worst of them before long.

Cheers, right?

Burton Hersh

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Who Serves IV


Again -- you may have noticed -- the conscription issue.  I do not profess to be a military historian, but I know a number of them.  Military history is so often the rough, scaly  public surface of intelligence history, which slides privately along the slime of the unacknowledged.  I spent the eighties interacting with hundreds of spooks while writing The Old Boys.  Many had put in their time soldiering, and a number are friends to this day.

It might be worthwhile to look at the questions about who winds up in the military through the other end of the telescope, asking ourselves what as a nation we have had to confront over my lifetime and what were the tools that made any sense.  When I was a child isolationism was the creed of the respectable right, and it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to jolt the America Firsters into going to war, which the Axis Powers declared first on us.  By the early fifties, with the British Empire decomposing, demagogues on the right like Joe McCarthy joined the One World visionaries behind the likes of Henry Wallace to support such organizations as NATO, the tactics and strategy of which came straight out of Washington.  Like Hitler, Stalin was a threat.  We fought a war in Korea similar to the engagements nation-states had been fighting for millenia, warm bodies and fixed bayonets.  The machine gun made a difference, but it was still land armies against land armies, with each hemorrhaging blood to overrun the other side's territory. We managed a stand-off -- at best -- in Korea because Eisenhower threatened to take out the industrial cities of Eastern China with the Strategic Air Command unless Mao got reasonable.  Wars like that were now unwinnable.

With the advent of atomic weapons, strategic and tactical, we found ourselves attempting to contend -- unwisely, almost always -- with insurgencies.  You picked a side, and bombed hell out of the upstarts in the jungle.  During most of the Viet Nam War the draft produced the millions of grunts we needed, but it is very hard to subdue a swamp, and even a proxy war in Asia is essentially hopeless.  We got clobbered.

After that the draft army was quietly discontinued, for the first time since 1940, and the military was forced to fall back on the harum-scarum recruitment policies that have led to so many tragedies.  Such back-up entities as the Reserves and the National Guard, where George W. Bush and other genteel scions of his generation were permitted to hide out when the fighting was fierce in Asia, modulated into pools of ready combatants, now that the well placed didn't need such protection when their deferments ran out.  The problem here was that a couple of hours marching on rural parade grounds on Saturday did not prepare several generations of small-town enthusiasts for months at a time, deployment after deployment,  for the baking heat and roadside detonations of a hellhole like Iraq, let alone the anxieties of "nation-building."  Enter post-traumatic stress disorder

The problem was partly the enemy.  After 911, when -- immediately, suspiciously to anybody who understands how slow the intelligence mills normally grind, virtually in the next-day's news cycle --  the culprits were identified as twenty plus or minus mostly young Saudis, names and backgrounds supplied -- the cry went up immediately on the jingoist right for blood, for revenge.  Somebody new to detest, to fear, to crank up the armaments industry and go after. Al Qaeda!

It was quite evident all along that Saddam Hussein, never one to make alliances or share power, was unlikely to be backing as uncontrollable a collection of hotheads and fanatics as Bin Laden's organization.  But the right-wing press -- and for a while the Bush administration -- insisted on the connection.  We invaded Iraq. Everybody I knew at CIA insisted that the weapons of mass destruction charges were bogus, certainly any atomic installations were impossible to hide from satellites.  Joe Wilson wrote bravely in The New York Times that Iraq had not been importing yellow-cake uranium ore from Africa. Nevertheless -- in we went, producing massive civilian casualties, expensive -- for us -- but perfunctory "nation-building," gigantic contractor profits, a crack for our multinationals at Iraq's enormous oil fields, a trillion-dollars-worth of debt to load on our children.

I thought -- and said at the time -- that, if we really wanted to scotch Al Qaeda, instead of rolling the tanks into Baghdad, amputating a huge, important part of the Middle East and then trying withour success to sew it back together, we should practice oncology.  Expend our intelligence assets, perfect our Special Operations Forces, use up some chits, identify the specific organizers and propagandists and promotors and bankers who made this terrorist network possible.  Then take them out.  Drones, defunding, SEALS, assassinations -- whatever it takes.  Pretty much what the Obama administration has been trying to manage, and with signal success.  The truly professional army we will need from now on is coming into view.  I hope we have the judgement to select, nurture, and reimburse the troops.

We ought to stop making war on abstractions, like "Terror."  Attempting to police the world will destroy us ultimately and won't help anybody else much in the long run.  We are a single nation -- limited resources, deep-seated needs and problems of our own.  We are long past due when it comes to subordinating our larger purposes to those of the special interests that drive our politics.  We have sacrificed an unconscionable number of our young people to wars they were never intended to fight.

It is time to reconsider.

Burton Hersh 


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Who Serves III


To the ramparts, again.  I really hadn't intended to go another round with the issue of how we pick our regular military, who gets picked, and what constitutes the fallout from our hit-and-run approach to meeting our requirements.  But this is important.  The way we use our volunteer military reflects a great deal that has gone unattended vis-a-vis the seismic sociological shifts that are collapsing our middle class.

Most of the people who got back to me tended to agree with my overall conclusions.  Several did not.  One friend of many, many years roared back in gigantic block letters, irate that I seemed to have said that "all the blue-collar men and women who enlist in the services are low-life misfits...."  Any reasonable reading of my last blog couldn't really have suggested that I thought anything like that.  What I did say was that a dangerous percentage of today's enlistees come into the services unprepared for the strains of military life -- let alone the acute stresses of combat exposure, often throughout repeated deployments.  Many come from problem families, others are offered the choice between jail and a hitch in the service,  few have the life experience or the sophistication to deal with the recurrent traumas that build up after months spent contending with angry tribesmen and revenge-seeking native trainees.  Profound animosities build up on both sides, passing incidents trigger explosions, and before long the Iraqis are telling us to clear out whatever the risks and the Afghans are refusing to let our trainers "embed" themselves in the native units we are supposed to be preparing to take the country over.

Many of my apprehensions are shared by the senior American military I've known over the years.  If we are going to continue to back ourselves into "nation-building" we had better develop a cadre of seasoned advisors conditioned for the role, not green GIs.  For what it's worth, perhaps I should elaborate here on a few details from my own experience.  After that first winter in Germany as the team chief of a radio unit on the Czech border, I was pulled back into the Civil Affairs Section of the Fourth Armored Division and designated a clerk and translator -- my German was very fluent then after my years as a Fulbright student.  My responsibilities ran from explaining to an outraged Buergermeister why some beered-up GI had tossed a fragmentation grenade into the lounge of the neighboring Gasthaus or driven his tank up the courthouse steps to interpreting at murder trials throughout the Republik to translating top-secret NATO documents.

My point here is that we too had incidents to contend with, but because we were a conscript army there were individuals like me available within the military qualified to work with the local people, smooth things over, keep atrocities in perspective.  My wife and I lived "on the economy," upstairs of a German family with whom we became close friends.  A lot of Germany still lay in rubble, but such informal relationships helped assuage the animosities from the -- then -- quite recent and devastating bombing.

No doubt the sort of work I did then is done today by "contractors," who have been hired at tremendous expense to the American taxpayer to perform touchy services like guarding diplomats and pulling perimeter guard, normally standard military obligations.  These people -- sometimes imports, sometimes retired military -- now serve in numbers that nearly approximate the active-duty personnel in the combat areas and remain utterly sequestered from the native populations, for their own protection.  Where city-size airfields are being built, KBR and other huge contractors bring in their own "blue-collar men and women" and make sure they are adequately secured.  Whether we intend to project ourselves as such or not, we continue to be perceived as occupiers.

As the technology of war advances, and a team in a bunker in Kansas operates a drone in Yemen that takes out a car full of Arabs we are pretty sure support Al Qaeda, it may be time to contemplate deep-seated changes.  If we want a space-age, electronic army we should no doubt stand prepared to support one.  The two-tier model, with a sergeant pulling in $40,000 a year and his contractor counterpart signing on for $200,000, probably ought to be replaced by an integrated organization in which everybody who joins is held to high standards of background and competence, paid accordingly, and sent to war only after both the Congress and the Executive Branch conclude war is the only option.  Everybody would recognize that the stakes are high, the blue-collar/white collar distinction would be meaningless, and everybody would be prepared to pay the price.

Perhaps with his own children.  Perhaps we need a draft again.  My Selective Service Board has my number.  I'm ready.


Burton Hersh