Just Above Sunset
September 4, 2005 - Who Do You Trust?

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Those of us, old enough to remember, recall in 1968 when Pete Seeger had been invited to appear on the CBS Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. This was the second season premiere and he was to sing his anti-war song, "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy." The song was about a gung-ho military officer during WWII - the guy attempts to force his men to ford a strong river only to be drowned in the mucky currents. Of course it was a thinly veiled metaphor for Lyndon Johnson and his Vietnam War. (It was his war by then.) CBS said no. The public got ticked off - letters and editorials and all that. CBS gave in. They allowed Seeger to appear on the Comedy Hour later in the season to perform the song. You could look it up, but some of us remember.

And some of us remember part of the lyrics:


Knee deep in the Big Muddy
And the damn fools keep yelling to push on
Waist deep in the Big Muddy
And the damn fools keep yelling to push on
Waist deep! Neck deep! We'll be drowning before too long
We're neck deep in the Big Muddy
And the damn fools keep yelling to push on.


You get the idea. But Iraq is not Vietnam. Bush is no Lyndon Johnson.

But one wonders. The Shiites and Kurds have their proposed constitution, and it goes to the vote on October 15th. The Sunnis say they never agreed to it and they'll vote it down if they can, and one can expect a lot of violence as the vote nears. They're not happy. Campaigning may be dangerous, and voting even more so - perhaps fatal. And if the voting takes place without too many bombing and assassinations, and it passes, perhaps we get a civil war, a Sunni uprising. And if it doesn't pass we may get one too as all three bloc fight for power in the resulting vacuum. Interesting. There will be a vote on the fifteenth - we will meet the schedule (or they will meet our schedule). Meeting the schedule matters. As some have pointed out, the Hindenburg arrived in New Jersey right on time.

But are things, really, when you take away the anti-war hype, going swimmingly, or at leas relatively swimmingly - no one drowning in any muddy river at all? Remember the Truth Tour - that trip those conservative talk show hosts took to Iraq last month? They were supposed to break through the pessimism and bring us the good news. That was covered in these pages here in July. Haven't heard much.

Bill Montgomery over at Whiskey Bar does discuss reporting on whatever the truth is in Notepads on the Ground, which is a sort of "who do you trust" with what the news is.

You might want to click on it for his summary of the reporting on Vietnam - David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan (the fellow who wrote A Bright and Shining Lie), Marguerite Higgins of the New York Herald Tribune saying she went over there and listened to the commanders and sat in on a lot of military briefings and we were winning that war, damn it! Fascinating stuff. Good quotes. Eerily familiar.

Who do you trust?

Well, Montgomery says things are different there. It's not like Vietnam at all:


All along, the reporters in Baghdad - the American ones, at least - have been operating in a far more restrictive environment than their Vietnam counterparts, both because of the Pentagon's rules and the complete absence of security. (As one old Vietnam foreign service hand recently noted, even at the height of the war, U.S. civilians could go just about anywhere they wanted to go in Saigon. Nobody in their right mind would say that about Baghdad.)

It's also true that the press corps in Baghdad doesn't even seem to get out as much as it used to do, back in the carefree days of mission accomplished and scattered resistance from a handful of "dead enders." With the Baghdad morgue now setting monthly records for new admissions, their wariness is understandable. No self-respecting reporter ever wants to hand their competitors a story, particularly if it involves their own death.

However, for all my complaints about the corporate media and its kneejerk cowardice when it comes to challenging official deceit - in Baghdad as well as Washington - even I have to admit the coverage on the ground in Iraq has been, for the most part, very good, and at times even excellent.

Given the conditions, the willingness of reporters ... to go out and cover the war from the front lines (such as they are) is in the best traditions of the Fourth Estate.


Maybe we are getting something like the truth. He has examples with links to some really good reporting. Check it out.

And note this:


Today, for example, I came across a collection of stories written by Knight Ridder reporter Tom Lasseter, who's spent the past three weeks with the Marines in Anbar province (a.k.a. "the wild, wild west") - not three days in the Green Zone chatting with "white collar soldiers", like our conservative talk show tourists.

Granted, it's still an embed point of view, but Lasseter's interviews with the noncoms and junior officers he meets, and his descriptions of their interactions with the Iraqi soldiers they are shepherding and the population surrounding them, paint a vivid picture of some truly outstanding soldiers who've been sent on an impossible mission - and who are trying very hard not to lose their minds or their humanity in the process. It's tragic, powerful stuff.


An example he cites?


Officers worry about the enemy while trying to make sure their men don't crack under the pressure.

"I tell the guys not to lose their humanity over here, because it's easy to do," said Marine Capt. James Haunty, 27, of Columbus, Ohio. "I tell them not to turn into Col. Kurtz" ...

Asked for an example of the kind of pressure that could cause Marines to crack, Haunty talked about the results of a car bomb: "I've picked up pieces of a friend, a Marine. I don't ever want to see that s--- again."


That is a reality check, and these are some truly outstanding soldiers who've been sent on an impossible mission.

A passage from Lasseter on "Iraqification" –


In Hit, Strickland finally managed to get three of the Iraqi soldiers to help him with the checkpoint. The fourth remained in the shade, making hand gestures indicating that he needed a light for his cigarette. Within five minutes the other three were making frequent motions toward the sun and then in the direction of the base. "Finish?" they asked. "We finish?"

A Marine standing nearby suggested to Stickland that maybe the answer was to train Iraqis as traffic police, give them orange vests and have them do traffic stops on their own.

Strickland laughed. "Yeah, until the muj finds out the Americans gave them the vests; then they'll kill 'em," he said, referring to the insurgents by the Arabic word for "holy warrior," mujahedeen.

"When they have problems, these guys will just leave their uniforms and walk off."


There's more, but you get the idea, such stuff in not in the daily briefings, and wasn't presented to the Truth Tour folks.

There are pockets of good, and progress, but this from Lasseter is telling:


Instead of referring to the enemy derisively as "terrorists" - as they used to - Marines and soldiers now give the insurgents a measure of respect by calling them "mujahedeen," an Arabic term meaning "holy warrior" that became popular during the Afghan guerrilla campaign against the Soviet Union.


Just a little detail.



If you read nothing else about the war in Iraq this weekend - or this month - read Lasseter's stories. True, they're just anecdotal pieces of evidence - although in this kind of war anecdotal evidence is probably more valuable than the reams of statistics and self-serving progress reports spat out by the Pentagon. Lasseter also doesn't paint the troops as the kind of heroic, larger-than-life action figures that make the fighting keyboarders drool with barely suppressed homoerotic envy. But you can't read his stuff and not come away with a profound sense of respect for the men and women who are fighting this war, and a boiling anger over the way they are being sacrificed to a hopelessly lost cause.

If that's "liberal bias," then American journalism - and the American people - could use a whole lot more of it.


Maybe, but what about those fighting keyboarders drooling with barely suppressed homoerotic envy?

You might want to check out James Wolcott and Once More Into The Chickencoop.

Wolcott starts off ticked at the neoconservative thinker Rich Lowry, who had recently written this: "If only members of the military - who are overwhelmingly conservative - were considered competent to decide the nation's posture on matters of war and peace, we would have an even more forward-leaning foreign policy. I'm comfortable letting the 82nd Airborne decide what we do about anti-American rogue states. Are opponents of the war?"

Well, yes. Wolcott sums up:


First of all, conservative or not, it is difficult to imagine that the US military leadership on its own would be as avid on invading and occupying other countries as the neoconservative architects of World War IV, of which Iraq is but one theater. Who do you think would be more likely to press for preemptive war, General Tommy Franks, who knows what the logistics, manpower, and materiel demands would be, or former undersecretary of defense Doug Feith, "the dumbest fucking man on the planet"?

... The guys and gals of the 82nd don't wake up in their barracks one morning and kibbitz amongst themselves. "What the hell, maybe it's time we took out Iraq. Let's get our gear together and requisition a transport plane, treat ourselves to a few kickass months in the Sunni triangle."

The 82nd Airborne goes where the Pentagon decides it should go, and that strategic decision is made by the civilian leadership. When the quality of the civilian leadership is corroded by arrogance, ignorance, and ideology, it is a formula for catastrophe.


And Wolcott reviews, one more time, what happened to General Shinseki, who said we might need three of four hundred thousand troops to pull this off. He got shit-canned. They don't even listen to the military on military matters.

Wolcott quotes James Fallows on how that went down:


Shinseki has been, through his career, a real by-the-book guy. So he would not go out of his way to make public disagreements that were clearly going on inside the Pentagon. But in the hearing where Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan was sort of drawing him out on what he expected the troop levels to be, Shinseki finally said, based on his own past experience, that he thought it would be several hundred thousand troops. This became a real arcane term about, what did several hundred thousand mean? But let's say 300,000 and up. His real level, internally, had been in the 400,000 range.

Several days later, Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defense, appeared before a different committee. [He] went out of his way essentially to slap Shinseki in the face, to say there had been some recent estimates that had been wildly off the mark - using the term, "wildly off the mark." Then he went on to say that it was almost impossible to imagine that it would be harder, and take more troops, to occupy Iraq than it had taken to conquer them; whereas that point, that it would be harder to occupy than conquer, was in fact the central theme the Army had been advancing before the war.


The end of the general's career, there.

Wolcott asks who was right about what was needed to do the job in Iraq, General Shinseki, "or those great military minds and neoconservative intellectuals Paul Wolfowitz and Richard 'The Army guys don't know anything' Perle? None of these guys were military, although the president has often said, "I've been to war and know what it's like." That's stretching a short time in the Texas Air National Guard, entirely stateside, just a bit, and given missed months and cutting out early too. Close enough? Well not like those fakers John Kerry and Max Cleland.

So what to make of these war folks, our self-described "war president" and all the fighting keyboarders drooling with barely suppressed homoerotic envy standing behind them and cranking out the PR? Chickenhawks?



For me, the working definition of a chickenhawk is - a chickenhawk is a cheerleader. A cheerleader for war. And not necessarily just the war in Iraq, or regional war in the Mideast, but war in general. A chickenhawk glorifies war as an enterprise, enjoying the heroics inside his or her head, mocking those less enthusiastic military aggression as pacifists, appeasers (Michael Ledeen's pet word), even traitors. Who patronize anyone with qualms, from the Quakers to the Chuck Hagel, with edgy impatience and disdain. Who treat the destruction of human life as a stupendous flourish as long as it's the US doing the destroying - who, that is, propose "creative destruction" on a geopolitical scale as an instrument of transformation. Not to mention an opportunity to teach those desert folks in sandals a lesson upside the head.


That about sums it up and you should read how he eviscerates John Podhoretz who explained going to war in Iraq was "luscious" as it put the Democrats in such a bad place. And he lays into Jonal Goldberg for saying, "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

No wonder Colin Powell left early.

But these are the guys we want leading us, or have wanted so far.

That's why this is pure fantasy. If Bush has left us with a choice between two false arguments, his stay the course and get out now, we all know neither will work. So –


Here's what we need to do: Tap into the willingness of the American people to embrace and solve its own problems. This is going to be highly problematic for Bush because he's going to have to come clean. We need to make this our war, not his war. It has to benefit us, not his crones. Here are some suggestions. (Don't count on the Dems to do anything but sniff the polls and lay back.)

Make the transition from oil to alternative fuel mandatory within the decade. It can be done technologically (It was feasible in the late 70s when I covered the auto industry as a reporter for a major automotive magazine). We've lost four years since 9/11 and are likely to lose four more under Bush. We cannot waste another day. Tax gasoline an additional dollar a gallon to cover the R&D and regulatory implementation.

Get serious about protecting us at home. That means shifting the billions of dollars that are lining Halliburton's pockets in Iraq to building a serious border protection capability. Three million people a year enter the US illegally through the Southwest and there is no plan to stop them. It means implementing a massive information architecture that tracks visas, passports and other documents of visitors. Perhaps some of the $300 billion could have been better spent.

Consider stiffening the requirements for alien visas and work permits. Make English proficiency a mandatory requirement.

Police and punish employers of illegal workers. No new laws as are needed, only a commitment to enforce them. Deport all undocumented workers, no questions asked.

Insist on making the war on terror truly global by involving other nations. Bush's military approach does not work. London's policing made the FBI, CIA and the thousand-headed hydra called the Department of Homeland Security look like chumps. Share information. Coordinate activities. Find the terrorists and kill them.

Prepare for the inevitable. There will be civil war in Iraq no matter what anyone does.


This is from "LeftCoast" at Best of the Blogs and doesn't account for national leadership that "glorifies war as an enterprise, enjoying the heroics inside his or her head." But the writer is right about the Democrats - don't count on them to "do anything but sniff the polls and lay back."

Tom Watson, one of those professional journalists who blogs on the side, explains that nicely:


Yet, of course, the toothless, political cowardice of the Democrats must not slip away into the night of history. Particularly in this Congress, lockstep support for national security in the "time of war" has given the Administration the social checkbook it needs to write the bills for this war. Far too many Democrats went along for the ride, bought too easily into the argument that everything is different after 9-11. They missed the fact that one thing didn't change, despite the panic of the President and his little yelping terriers: we still have some national character in this country, we can't be sold a bill of goods forever, we know when to hold 'em and to fold 'em.

And folks, it's time to fold 'em. When the argument for continuing war is to merely to honor the dead that have gone before with more dead, with more wounded, with more destruction, you know the jig is up, that the military maneuver is merely in the form of a forlorn hope, destined to die for nothing. The Iraqi civil war will rage until there is no Iraq. There never was an Iraq, except as the construct of an empire and a dictator; we had no business in the squabbles of religious tribes. And we have no business in helping to write a constitution that places the lives of women at the mercy of a medieval code of sexist, moralist, symbolist system of humiliation and punishment. Conspiring with the mullahs against women may be George W. Bush's greatest act of treason against the world's people - and it will live in infamy.

There is nothing to this but to admit failure, and save American lives. Perhaps that is not honorable. Perhaps it leaves a vacuum in the east, into which the hard-core religionists can step. To bad: it is done. And we need to be done.


See Pete Seeger, above.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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