Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Other People's Children


Midwinter, always a good time to ponder the vanities and nose into a little trouble.  Now that the Army is about to be cut, and the Warhawks are predictably outraged, let's think for a few paragraphs about what service in the military has turned into.

Last week I finished making my way through Duty, Robert Gates' memoir about his eight years as Secretary of Defense.  Gates' bureaucratic colleagues have been publicly outraged by Gates' frankness about the policy bloodbaths behind closed doors, especially during the Obama tenure.  More consistent -- more moving -- are Gates' accounts of his visits to military hospitals, where the disoriented survivors of too many deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan and sullen quadruple paraplegics and burnt-out veterans praying for the opportunity to kill themselves gazed up from their wheelchairs or festered in their sick beds and demanded of the Secretary some justification for their sacrifices. Why had this happened, what was that all about?  Robert Gates had very few answers; each visit haunted him.

Almost incidentally, Gates mentions that, of the Special Forces personnel who served in Afghanistan, roughly half have been either killed or permanently disabled.  The IEDs were killing and maiming our people wholesale, but Gates can't help getting into the fact that there wasn't really enough money in the budget for long-term aftercare or adequately armored personnel carriers. These were apparently sacrifices the Rumsfeld secretariat was prepared to make.  Our national  interests -- power projection,  access to resources, crushing the jihadists --  had automatically gotten top priority.  They needed to  be defended,  if exclusively by other people's children. Most of our Chief Executives after FDR had logged in time in the military and so had some awareness of what war was all about.. Since 1992 that hasn't been the case -- George W. Bush's absentee months in the National Guard don't really qualify as service.  Perhaps it's no accident that, inside the Obama War Room, the most stubborn holdout against jumping into embroilments around the world was Joe Biden, who has a son on active duty.

As faithful readers of this blog surely remember, I put in a couple of years in the Army in Germany.  My first winter, 1956, I spent as an Acting Sergeant presiding over four other live-wire draftees -- a Puerto Rican numbers runner, a Mexican railroad telegrapher, a seventeen-year-old black professional pickpocket from Detroit, and a very hard-nosed breaking-and-entering expert off a North Dakota farm who had chosen the Army over the penitentiary.  The five of us were in place in the deep woods for over a month at the edge of the Grafenwohr training compound, just over the Czech border, in a mobile communications unit, an "Angry 26."  We were there as part of the "tripwire" system to alert NATO by Morse Code if the nearby Russian troops -- we heard their artillery booming away day and night -- started to move.

My biggest responsibility that winter was keeping my charges from killing each other or me or winding up in the stockade.  There was no room in the communications trailer we trucked along, so we took turns running the radios and reperforating equipment and sleeping in the snow.  A couple of weeks into this hitch I came down with some kind of flu, accompanied by a fever.  One morning around five, while I was sacked out in a snowdrift, I felt the tip of a boot nudging my head and looked up into the disapproving face of Major General Andrew O'Mara, the commanding officer of our Fourth Armored Division. O'Mara styled himself after George Patton, complete to the pearl-handled six-guns on each hip.

"On your feet, Sergeant," O'Mara was barking.  "I want you in that unit, running your radio."

"Can't handle that," I muttered.  "Too sick."

"I don't want to hear any excuses," the general said, and unsnapped one holster.

Fever was making things bleary.  "General, I'm in bad shape," I said.  "If you're going to shoot me, shoot me."

A long moment passed.  During the previous year several friends of mine had died for very little reason -- a black professional boxer who had sneaked off the base without a pass and been gunned down by the officer of the day when he tried to make it back around the guard post, a trainee during basic training who wanted another stripe so badly he kept struggling along until pneumonia killed him.  The military can be unforgiving.

O'Mara's pistol went back in its holster.  There was a pause.  "I'm going to be watching you, young trooper," the general conceded, in a growl, and climbed back into his jeep.  Months later, when I had managed to snag a job as a German translator for the Seventh Army and found myself driving around with O'Mara investigating maneuver damage claims, I wondered if he remembered the incident.  He never brought it up, and I certainly didn't.

All this comes back as the country-club Superpatriots clamor for more war, more involvement, more ignorant youngsters sacrificed.  Perhaps a smaller army will use up its people more carefully.

The past.  It isn't really ever past.


Burton Hersh


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Before the Jihad -- Iran


Rain, here in Western Florida we have been experiencing weeks of rain.  Midwinter, unmoving, dead center.
In Switzerland, prodded by John Kerry, talks are moving toward what is hoped to be some kind of status-in-place, at least, in devastated Syria.  Another conversation appears to have established at least the first stage of a stand-down between Iran and the West over Iran's production of fissionable materials.  The newly-elected Iranian president Rohani proclaims his countrymen prepared to freeze -- and even in several categories roll back -- Iran's nuclear production.  This appears to be devastating news to the Israelis and the Saudis, who want Iran neutralized.  In fact, diplomatically, this is a moment comparable with Reagan's exchange with Gorbachev during the late eighties that led to the dismantling of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War.

Collectively, Americans seem inclined to operate outside their own history.  I was reminded of this last week reading Stephen Kinzer's dual biography The Brothers, a very solid study of the machinations of Allen and John Foster Dulles during the Eisenhower administration.  Kinzer presents the pair as practitioners of "corporate globalism," an unapologetically ruthless promotion of Western commercial interests worldwide.  This translates too often into the interests of Sullivan and Cromwell, the Dulles' law firm -- Kinzer alludes to the ownership by the brothers of large blocs of United Fruit stock prior to the overthrow of Arbenz in Nicaragua and the law firm's involvement with Overseas Consultants, Inc., a consortium of American engineering firms "looking for a country to transform.  They settled on Iran, which the United States viewed as a strategic prize."  Foster separated mankind into "those who are Christians and support free enterprise. and there are the others."  The others were fair game.

Kinzer is kind enough to cite with favor passages from my own book, The Old Boys:  The American Elite and the Origins of the CIA.  Perhaps more than Kinzer, I traced out exactly how the CIA managed in 1953 to convulse the functioning parliamentary system in Iran, drive out the aged prime minister, Muhammad Mossadegh, who had announced his intention to nationalize Iran's oil fields, and leave Iran's resources in the hands of Anglo-Iranian -- a predecessor of British Petroleum -- and a condominium of U.S. oil majors. The unstable Shah, who had fled, returned and in effect turned Iran over to the Americans as a military base and center of operations throughout the Middle East.  His rule was brutal, abetted by SAVAK, the secret police we trained -- many ex-SS technicians were still in the employ of the CIA -- and assisted by experts from Mossad.

This was the CIA's first five-star exhibition in the political action category.  The star turn throughout was performed by Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy Roosevelt's gifted grandson, once a history instructor at Harvard and Cal Tech, who had been roaming the Middle East.  Roosevelt installed Nasser in Egypt and moved on to Iran, where, guided by British planning at MI6,  he slipped in from Baghdad hidden under a blanket in the back seat, picked up $100,000 at the American Embassy, and bribed enough generals and bodybuilders to terrorize the streets and take the country over.

Researching The Old Boys I got to know Kermit Roosevelt well.  By the eighties he had settled into dignified retirement in Georgetown.  By then the Ahatollahs were in charge in Iran.  The hostage crisis and fear of an October Surprise had hardened resentment on both sides. Under Reagan we had been reduced to sending Don  Rumsfeld to Iraq to offer Saddam Hussein -- initially, a CIA asset -- arms and intelligence with which to prosecute his ten-year war of attrition with Iran -- we weren't so skittish about sarin then -- and mistakes at every stage were setting us up for our own series of misbegotten wars.  Roosevelt seemed to anticipate this, and was increasingly depressed.  We talked, a number of times, and mutual friends told me later that once The Old Boys came out, Roosevelt came around, to some extent.  At least the truth was out there.

There is clearly a lot of distrust, on both sides, in Geneva today.  There is obviously opportunity.  Let's hope we take it.

And that the rain lets up.


Burton Hersh