October 28, 2004

Real Heroes

You Want to Hear from Some Real War Heroes?
Read Some of the Letters the Troops Have Been Sending Home.

(Thanks to the website associated with Micah Ian Wright's book.)

I picked up Michael Moore's "Will They Ever Trust Us Again?" at the library the other day. It was a quick read. Really, there's nothing in there by Michael Moore. The book is simply a compilation of what he felt were the most compelling letters received from our troops and their families.

The one thing that a lot of people really find moving about Moore's movie and books like this is that Moore is letting the troops speak for themselves. He is expressing sympathy and admiration for the troops, pointing out that, yes, they volunteered for the job, but we as Americans have a duty not to put them into harm's way unless it is absolutely necessary. And Iraq was far, far from it. And the troops realize it. Oh sure, you have your gung-ho troops that are all for Bush and think the war in Iraq is a smashing idea, but there is a large contingent that is very dissatisfied over the sacrifice they are being asked to make.

It's not that they are upset that they are making a sacrifice. They are upset that the sacrifice is meaningless, that it is being given in the name of this incompetent frat boy in the White House. This book was more powerful for me than "Fahrenheit 9/11", just because I already knew a lot of the stuff in the movie. This is powerful because it isn't Moore talking. It is our soldiers and their families doing the talking. It is very real.

The best parts of "Fahrenheit 9/11" were the parts in which Moore just put people on camera and let them speak for themselves. Lila, the mother of the soldier who died, is the most prominent example of that. But he also let the Iraqis speak. Listening to that old Iraqi woman screeching about the horror and devastation visited upon her house and her family, crying and screaming all at once: it is something you don't forget easily. It helps you understand why, despite our best intentions, many Iraqis will hate us for this forever.

I listened to a guy on Franken's show today who wrote a book about life in the Green Zone. He said that basically everything going on over there right now is an abject failure, but he also pointed out that we need to keep this in perspective. It isn't a failure because these are right-wingers running the show. It's a failure because Americans are running the show, and we just don't have what it takes to be a colonial power. We're just not good at this, not in this environment. A liberal administration trying to fix Iraq would probably not do much better and perhaps even worse.

What encourages me about that is knowing that Kerry is smart enough to accept this, and he is willing to listen to ideas. He brings a fresh approach to Iraq, and he will change things over there. And believe me, we need a big shakeup over there to get things going on the right track. I don't pretend that I know what to do at this point, but my first guess is to just pull the troops out of there completely. Then we can pour money into humanitarian relief efforts that aren't related to the military and aren't related to for-profit companies.

Right now, the reason reconstruction isn't working is because there isn't enough security. Even if we doubled the number of troops there and kept them there for a decade (hello, draft!), I still don't think the security problem would be solved. The Iraqis have to accept and go along with whatever we're doing, or things are going to continue to spiral downward. We have to pull out the troops as an act of good faith and let Iraqis control their own destiny.

I could be wrong, but I would seriously look into that possibility (it has the unabashed upside of bringing our troops home, at least, and few other plans have such a guarantee of a major positive result). People with more knowledge and insight than me would probably do it differently. What's important is that we have a leader willing to listen to lots of different ideas and intelligently pick a course of action and see where it takes us. What we have right now in office is a petulant child who is going to keep on banging that square peg into the round hole of Iraq until the peg is completely splintered and destroyed.

Posted by Observer at October 28, 2004 07:13 AM

Comments on entries can only be made in pop-up windows while those entries are still on the main index page. Sorry for the inconvenience this causes, but this blocks about 99.99% of the spam the blog receives.

I think if we pulled our troops out, it would become Afghanistan II in less than a month.

Posted by: Humbaba on October 28, 2004 09:51 AM

I have to agree with Humbaba here. The situation is far worse than Viet Nam in this respect. The U.S. is solely responsible for throwing Iraq into lawless chaos, and we cannot pull out leaving it in that condition.

Since Iraq's boundaries are largely artificial (drawn by the Brits and the French at the end of WW1) and a lot of the violence is of internal origin, I think the proper thing to do is partition it into three separate states (Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds). (Turkey, of course, will never allow that last part to be established, having their own lot of Kurds with separatist longings right across the border.) The worst of the Saddam Hussein regime was the Sunnis keeping the others under their thumbs, and lots of the internal violence is the Sunnis trying to regain that condition over the entire area. Breaking Iraq into pieces less internally wracked by religious/ethnic dissension would be in the Wilsonian ideal, and if you look at the map now of what once was Austria-Hungary, it's not necessarily hopeless. The alternative is to track town every member of the Baath Party and hang him from the nearest lamppost.

To make a viable state from the wreckage we made will require a presence in Iraq for a number of years. There's no way around that. Metaphorically, Bushco raped the girl and left her with an unwanted bastard child. That situation has a timescale which cannot be accelerated without killing the child. What's the proper thing to do now? Turn away entirely when they most need assistance? Observer, you are echoing the worst of the post-WW1 isolationists when you suggest that we do exactly that. Europe and Japan today are free, stable, and prosperous because we did NOT just go home after WW2. The other truly great American peace hero, Gen. George Marshall, did much of that work.

*That's* the reason I want to see Bushco dangling from lampposts in place of or alongside the Baaths. The hour we sent ground troops into Iraq, we were doomed to be there a decade, because we have no one but the US Government to blame for the mess there.

Posted by: Feff on October 28, 2004 10:23 AM

Wait, I thought Afghanistan was a flowering Democracy now? Oh, wait, I see, so you're saying we shouldn't have pulled all the troops out of there in the first place to go to war with Iraq. I get it. Yeah, that was one of many colossal mistakes by the Boy King, and we knew it at the time. And you're thinking of voting for that guy, Humbaba?

But there is a difference between pulling out the troops and going to another war and pulling out the troops to bring them home. I would love for Iraq and Afghanistan to be rebuilt just like Germany and Japan were, but is that even possible? Seriously, I don't think it is, but I woud love to be convinced otherwise.

I agree that we are responsible for "fixing" what we broke in Iraq, but can you really definitively say that pulling the troops out isn't among the best of a series of bad alternatives? I'm not saying we forget Iraq. I'm saying we turn this from a military battle into a humanitarian effort on a vast scale.

It will take a huge risk and enormous sacrifice on the part of the aid workers to do this, to go into Iraq and throw themselves on the mercy of the a zillion angry, hungry people with AK-47's, and we'll likely lose a lot of them. But there's no way out of this that doesn't involve a whole lot more casualties. I'd like to be convinced that we *CAN* win with our troops, but I'm not holding my breath.

Posted by: Observer on October 28, 2004 11:17 AM

I hate to say this because it makes me feel like a cold, heartless bastard, but it is the only thing I can see that might save us in the long run...

There's nothing to be done in Iraq today. Iraqi's (or non-Iraqi dissenters or whoever they are) are stooping to kidnapping Iraqi citizens who are strongly associated with foreign governments (see the CARE worker who is a Brit ex-pat who was recently a hostage and still is as far as know)...

As long as people on the ground there want to be idiots and barbarians, there is nothing to be done shy of carpet-bombing the place into oblivion (or perhaps some more systematic and thorough pogrom although that is much more risky for USers and certainly no way to win public support) to provide a safe environment to work in.

Whatever humanitarian aid you bring into that country today with associations to the US is going to be viewed with suspicion at best and more likely is going to be attacked and/or destroyed (in the case of improvements like schools, hospitals and infrastructure).

So pull out. Isolate the country. Inform US businesses and multinationals that you will confiscate all US assets of any company that goes in or does business with them. Yes, I know that you will reward the "warlords" who can gather power in the resulting vacuum, but at the moment you are giving them the same opportunity for power *and* giving them an enemy to mobilize against *and* killing US citizens.

Months or years from now you go back in with humanitarian efforts first. You find volunteers who are willing to go in without military protection (you know, the guys in the camo fatigues that draw attention and then fire?) and build infrastructure and provide training. The first time there is a kidnapping or a killing you pull the whole thing out and abandon the country again for a longer period of time.

This risks a couple of things but the alternatives are very expensive. Yes, you risk letting the Sunnis establish another oppressive regime (but that is happening today unless you follow Feff's suggestion to hunt down every one and string him up from a suitably tall structure). Yes, you risk the mob mentality overcoming basic operant conditioning resulting in killings. At the same time you eliminate direct confrontation without any ability to communicate or even understand motives for the other side.

Heck, maybe in the downtime you could actually invest in training US military and intelligence officers in *gasp* the Iraqi languages and cultures.

Posted by: Seattle Astronomer on October 28, 2004 11:55 AM

Remember ... it took between 5 and 10 years to rebuild Germany and Japan. Those were places where the infrastructure had been destroyed as thoroughly as was technically possible to do at the time (making the task harder than in Iraq, because neither the US nor the Iraqi looters did anything like that level of destruction), but whose populations were long attuned to obedience to central authority (making the task easier). That's the scale of the task of making a stable, viable country; it's a more involved task than a simple coup d'etat. So now you're complaining the task in Iraq is too hard and we should give up now, go home, and whine and rail against the bastard who gave you the task in the first place? You sound like certain students in a freshman science lab! It stopped being that simple long ago.

You also sound like the worst of the Depression-era isolationists. TROUBLE NEVER GOES AWAY WHEN YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON IT.

You are also committing the worst sort of wishful thinking if you think you can isolate Iraq and let it just fester in its own slime. There is too much oil, too much money, too much involvement with the world. To do that you will have to fire on every plane, vessel, and vehicle that crosses the frontier. You think this is a *lower* commitment than we have there now? Those vessels will fly flags like France, China, Netherlands, Russia, the UN, the International Red Cross. You want to fire on those, defend your right to do so?

You will also have to fight in the US courts against the Halliburtons and the rest of Big Oil to keep them from grabbing all the sweet crude and cash they can, courts that have been loaded with a number of nice sympathetic judges over the last few years. You can't do it, and you're dreaming to think you can. They will buy whatever warlord lets them pump oil out as fast as possible and keep their quarterly balance sheets up. I just hope they don't pay the warlords in fissile metals.

If you abandon Iraq, you *will* get another Taliban-type regime at worst or another Saddam regime at best. But instead of having the puny economic output of Afghanistan behind it, you'll have Iraq's oil reserves and the billions that generates. The UN mandate for sanctions against Iraq is gone because the offending government is gone, and you haven't a snowball's chance in hell of getting another one. That means whatever comes to power in Iraq, it won't be limited in the way the Saddam regime was; it'll have as much of that oil as it can command by force. If mischief has any dependence on available economic means, think about what that would spawn!

Afghanistan isn't a glorious wonderful freedom-and-justice-for-all-even-liberals democracy, like, say, Texas is, but it's a damned sight better now than it was, and it seems to be moving slowly in directions that I wouldn't immediately call bad. It didn't have a strong (if evil) central government to begin with, nor a millenium of social/religious strife feeding violence. Getting out of *there* was done more or less in a way that made sense; the promised aid hasn't been given there, but the social situation isn't outright barbaric violence there, is it? Considering the decade-class timescale you have to expect for building stable states, things could be a damned sight worse.

There isn't a good exit strategy for Iraq, but getting out as fast as you can get the helicopters in and out is among the worse alternatives.

Posted by: Feff on October 28, 2004 12:58 PM

To be honest, I am coming at things from a slightly different perspective, although you are right to point out that we'd get a festering swamp of a country if we pulled out. I also agree that you cannot fire on the vessels going in and out of Iraq with impunity because you are right about who they would be. As I said above, pulling out will make that country and armpit for the forseeable future.

What I *am* coming from is operant conditioning. We have *nothing* to motivate people over there. We're a direct aversion to a number of people and we're a danger to those that are not averse to us as the numbers for innocent bystanders show when a bomb goes off next to a convoy. If I thought for a second that being there, losing another 1,000 US troops and spending another $250 billion would help us avoid having another Taliban-style regime with nearly unlimited funding I'd say it'd be worth it. With the policy I see today and the policy that I have seen our government use for the last twenty years in situations like this I don't have that much hope.

Today, your options are kinda limited to sending over boys with guns and watching people hate them and kill them while some of them bash "rag-heads" and kill Iraqis in the streets claiming later that they were insurgents. Anything else you want to do requires that as a first step. We have nobody who understands the language or the culture. We're occupying and we're currently not doing a damned thing to help the situation. We're not fixing infrastructure for anyone outside the green zone. We've done more damage than good to the power grid and we're back into winter.

The way you handle a violent dog in this kind of situation is to wait for it to starve and then offer it food. Make it associate you with something good. Being the source of beneficent aid will sure as hell make us look better in Iraq than being the source of cash paying the most powerful people in the country for the right to raid their natural resources (read "oil").

The problem is that it only works if you actually get everyone to let them sit there and figure out that oil is not very edible. The only way to do that would be to create an law giving the US government the right to seize all US assets of any country doing business with the Iraqis.

Seems like a pain in the arse, but you know... I figure it is more likely to be a safer (in human lives), more cost effective solution to the problem in the long run than housing 200-400,000 US troops over there for the next 20 years.

We've sure as hell demonstrated that the historical version of US foreign policy doesn't know a damn thing about solving this kind of problem and it's time to think outside the box. I don't think my proposal here is a viable solution because I doubt that we have the balls, much less the power, to actually isolate Iraq and without that the rest of it is pointless so we're back to a commitment of untold billions of dollars and a huge cost in disrupted lives and possibly dead US soldiers.

Woo-hoo, can I say again how glad I am that we have a Shrub in the Oval Office?

Posted by: Seattle Astronomer on October 28, 2004 06:00 PM

OK, sounds like we're differing on a mix-up between motives and methods, and we have no real argument. In that case, I agree with you.

In fact, I am reminded of an incident back shortly after the invasion started, when a vehicle carrying a family was destroyed by US troops for failing to stop at a checkpoint.

For reasons that are obvious to us Americans, vehicles that don't stop when they are supposed to are presumed to be truck bombs and are fired on and destroyed before they go any further. The family was killed because they didn't stop, because in Iraq (as in most of the world outside Anglophone North America) the "rules of the road" are: ignore anything tries to take away your right-of-way, honking if necessary to ward off collisions. Since they weren't avoiding a collision, just some doofus (a doofus in desert camos, but that's irrelevant to the driver) on foot telling them to stop, they didn't honk and kept going. So they were simply driving the way they always drove. Put that mix together, and they ate an anti-vehicle missile, with predictable results.

Tragic, I admit. But on the other hand, after that incident, supposedly Iraqis became ***MUCH*** more observant of what we Americans would call conventional rules of the road. They don't blow off checkpoints any more, which was s.o.p. before then.

Operant conditioning....

Posted by: Feff on October 29, 2004 10:51 AM

What's depressing is that even if Kerry wins, the battle is far from over. There's so much mess to clean up from this stupid administrations, foreign and domestic. If Kerry wins and doesn't have either branch of Congress, it'll be Clinton's 2nd term all over again (and a better than even chance of another ginned-up impeachment investigation). If Kerry gets the Senate but not the House, it will be a stalemate with very little real progress possible.

If Kerry gets the Senate and by some miracle the House as well, he's still going to have to spend four years driving us back out of the deficit ditch and figuring out what to do in Iraq and Afghanistan. Not an enviable job. At least we might get to replace Rehnquist with a thinking human being, so there is an upside that will last.

I'm just worried that Kerry is doomed to be a one-termer, and then we'll put another Bush-clone in the presidency. My only hope on that count is maybe John McCain wouldn't be so bad as president if he didn't surround himself with all the knuckleheads Bush has been using. What the hell would the Swift Boat Vets do with themselves for an entire election season if Kerry and McCain ran against one another?

Posted by: Observer on October 29, 2004 01:03 PM

My vote's mailed already, so I am paying even less attention than ever to anything to do with the campaign. And yes, I am expecting the worst.

Posted by: Feff on October 29, 2004 03:16 PM