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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Summon Up The Blood* 

I'm on a total military-media binge right now. I loved the movie Jarhead, so I got the book and recently finished reading it. Then I heard about Chasing Ghosts by Paul Rieckhoff (pictured at right), which describes his time in Iraq from May 2003 - February 2004. (More on CG in a moment.) Now I've started into At Hell's Gate, Claude Anshin Thomas' powerful memoir of Vietnam and how Buddhism provided him a way out of the cycles of despair and violence. Then of course there are the military video games -- BF2MC and Socom III.

Surely it must seem odd to those who know me as a fervent antiwar activist to be so engrossed in military memoirs and virtuality, but I think -- as Rieckhoff points out -- that it's really important for us civvies to get a handle on what it's like for the men and women who do the fighting (sometimes on our behalf). After all, Remarque wrote All Quiet on the Western Front to let people know about his experiences in WWI.

* From Henry V, Act III, Scene 1.

Chasing Ghosts Review Part One: War Life

I really enjoyed Rieckhoff's book. There are bits I disagree with -- see below -- but overall I'm impressed with the clarity of his style and the humanizing way he depicts both his troops and the Iraqis.

Some parts of the story serve to illustrate how poorly the troops are supported by the government -- Rieckhoff mentions the incident when Rumsfeld was grilled by a soldier about why the equipment and vehicles given to the troops are so poorly armored. Although Rieckhoff doesn't go this far, I think such a point is made more frustrating by the fact that our defense budget for 2006 is 450 billion dollars, not counting the wars in Iraq and Afghganistan (those are costing an extra 63 billion). If that money isn't going toward things our troops really need, like armor and NVG brackets (night-vision goggle clips, which Rieckhoff mentions are in short supply), where is it going?

Sometimes it's a "bureaucratic muddle," as Rieckhoff puts it. Describing the difficulty they often had communicating with other troops who were very closeby, he writes:
Higher command had refused to give me the radio frequency I needed to call that unit, so we couldn't request help. We were two hundred meters away from each other, and we couldn't talk. . . . I wasn't even supposed to cross the sector line, walk over to the other unit and ask then what their frequency was. . . .

Guys from my unit took to using mirrors to flash our frequencies to the other side of the river in Morse code. (101)
Rieckhoff also does a very good job of depicting the instant horror of dealing with checkpoints and civilians (who could potentially be insurgents). (Tim Robbins also did this well in Embedded, and Thomas writes in Hell's Gate about the time a group of Vietnamese men in Buddhist monk robes opened fire with AK47s.) Rieckhoff writes:
A scenario that happened more times than I can count: a sedan comes barreling toward us. The headlights are out. The car is not slowing down. Maybe the driver can't see the line of soldiers in the street. Maybe he doesn't notice the headlights of two Humvees facing him. Maybe he's extremely drunk. Maybe the car is filled with a hundred pounds of explosives. We wave our flashlights at the car. But he keeps coming. We fire warning shots in the air. But he keeps coming. The car is close enough now that I can see the outline of the three passengers inside the cabin. But he keeps coming. I think about the fact that last week, another Squad lit up a car and killed a little girl. The .50-cal rounds blew her head clear off her body. She was wearing a little blue dress. I saw the pictures. But the driver keeps [bad word] coming. Just a few weeks ago, four American soldiers were killed ten blocks away when a car loaded with explosives ran a checkpoint. One of the soldiers had five kids. Another was nineteen years old and had just gotten married. We fire rounds into the ground feet in front of the bumper. But he keeps coming. There are no alternatives left. The vehicle is close enough that I can see dents in the orange hood.

What would you do? (117)
Part of the power of this sort of honest depiction is that it will keep those of us here in our safe cocoon from making snap judgments about those serving overseas. We have to admit that we don't know what it's like, and that we have to put everything in context.

At the same time, I feel as though so much of what Chasing Ghosts describes (this is true about other war stories, especially All Quiet) points to the need for us to abolish the existence of war itself. (Rieckhoff says that sometimes war is necessary -- more on this below -- but spares no rage for those who led us into Iraq on faulty premises.)

Chasing Ghosts Review Part Two: Aftermath

When it comes to Iraq, Rieckhoff has some important points to make. First is the state of the nation:
Think of it this way: Iraq is like an entire country with battered woman syndrome. U.S. forces are like cops responding to a domestic violence case. We have removed the abusive husband, but the wife and children are not "all better" the day their oppressor gets locked up. The family has deep mental and physical wounds that will not disappear overnight. They desperately need care, treatment, and time to heal properly. And to compound the problem, the cops have eaten from the fridge, busted the TV, and left the front door open with a broken lock. (166)
It is this recognition that the military is not always helping matters that makes CG a truly excellent book -- it is more self-aware than I ever expected. When describing the regular raids his troops conducted, he discusses the importance of trying to apologize when raiding a house of innocent civilians unconnected to the insurgency:
So it was critical that we showed remorse and humility. My men made every effort to repair the stereotypical image of the ugly American that so many people around the globe have grown to despise. . . .

Finally, always, before we left any house, we focused on the kids. We never left a house without handing candy to the kids. . . . The candy was a small gesture of reconciliation and kindness that might reverberate for years. Or maybe it was just putting a Band-Aid on a tumor. (170-171)
Chasing Ghosts Review Part Three: Politics & Media

Once back in the US, Rieckhoff describes the social and political climate he finds at home. In addition to the on-edge unease experienced by everyone returning to civilian life after combat, he says:
My values had changed. I didn't have time for bull[bad word], velvet ropes, and polite small talk anymore. I only cared about things with real meaning. Solipsistic fashionistas and silk-suited businessmen strutting down the street made me cringe. They were self-appointed Masters of the Universe who cared more about the labels on their clothes than the policies of their country. I laughed at the urban hipsters and hip-hop roughnecks wearing army field jackets and camouflage to be cool. (261)
In the runup to the 2004 election, Rieckhoff tries to influence the Bush and Kerry campaigns; Bush completely ignores him, and while Kerry met with him and other vets, the Kerry team tries to make them into props with no role but to repeat talking points. "Clearly," he writes on p. 300, "the John Kerry of 1971 never could've gotten in to see the John Kerry of 2004."

Whilst describing his relations with international journalists in Iraq, Rieckhoff makes several salient points. One is that the military's censorship of its personnel (the movie Jarhead showed this intriguingly), combined with the media's reliance on official sources, leads to "weak and inaccurate" coverage of the war (Rieckhoff's words).
They never got the other side. The Iraqi side. When was the last time you saw Colonel Ollie North interviewing an Iraqi about Operation Kickass or whatever clever name the Army came up with? It would be the equivalent of a reporter covering the story of a white cop shooting a black man in an American inner city, and only interviewing the cops, not the family and neighbors to get their take on the event. You'd only get 50 percent of the story. And a very slanted 50 percent. (216)
Ollie North got a chance to whine about this excerpt when Rieckhoff went on Hannity & Colmes. The book goes on to say:
War reporting should not be about balance. It should be about accuracy. There's never a perfect equilibrium of good and bad news stories in any situation. People always complain that the news doesn't show enough good stories coming out of Iraq. That's because it is a war zone. The news is already bad. Imagine how much worse the reports would be without all the Pentagon spin. If you want good news stories, go to Disneyland. (216)
Chasing Ghosts Review Part Four: Sensible War?

At the end of the book, Rieckhoff makes clear his political independence:
[Members of Operation Truth, the organization founded by Rieckhoff and others] weren't tree-hugging peaceniks and we weren't throwing our medals at the White House. Sometimes military action is necessary -- all of us understood that. . . . We argued that what America needed was a sensible war movement. (302, emphasis in the original)
Obviously, the philosophical divide about whether war is a necessary or unnecessary evil is universal and has existed as long as war has. But I really object to the continued demonization of antiwar activists as "tree-hugging peaceniks". My high school friend Owen (who has built a career in the military) and I didn't see eye-to-eye on many questions of politics (especially whether or not war was necessary). But he understood that my objection to war came from my love for human life -- including (especially?) the life of the soldier. The same is true about most antiwar activists I know; while perhaps it is a testament to the poor job many activists have done in communicating how we feel, this dismissive attitude is annoying at best and serves to alienate potential allies at worst.

As for tactics:
We also made the strategic decision that we would not be joining any antiwar protesters marching around with signs ranging from "End the Blockade of Cuba!" to "Free Palestine!" Public demonstrations and rallies were outmoded, Vietnam-era tactics that failed to move either the public or the policy makers. (303)
There are two different things being thrown into the pot at once here:
  1. People on the left often use any opportunity to seek redress for grievances which have little or nothing to do with the topic at hand. Yes, absolutely. Whenever WORT asks listeners to call in, they always get a few calls about how 9/11 was a vast conspiracy planned and executed by the Bush administration -- this even happened on a show about the recent Wisconsin anti-gay-marriage amendment! Those of us who fight for justice and democracy should work to keep our focus -- and if we don't have anything to say about the topic at hand, shut the [bad word] up!

  2. Protests are outmoded. Well, I don't know. It may be the case that in the past, people took to the streets because they had no other option if they wanted to be heard. Given the lightspeed advances in information technology and connectivity, this is surely no longer the case. But I think it's also wrong to say that protests do nothing. The truth is that we don't know what they can accomplish. When we marched against Indonesian occupation of East Timor, did that really serve no purpose? If they don't have any effect, why do the cops move so violently to break up protests against the IMF and World Bank?
Again, I feel that this excerpt paints all of us on the left with a broad brush of contempt, as if to say we don't matter and we're not worth joining forces with.

Rieckhoff does make a very good point about what protests look like from inside the base:
[W]hen they marched outside military bases, for example, their efforts came across, to veterans, as insensitive and counterproductive. Although their intentions may have been otherwise, they appeared to blame the warriors, instead of the decision makers, for the war. (303)
I definitely agree. I've always made it clear to my friends and former students in the military that my beef is with those who make the policy, not those who are ordered to carry it out. We can discuss the rights and responsibilities of soldiers who are given orders which conflict with their conscience, but I agree with Rieckhoff that we should keep our focus on the people in charge.

Chasing Ghosts Review Part Five: Conclusions and the Future

Overall, I feel that I -- and others in the antiwar movement -- have a tremendous amount of common ground with Rieckhoff and those allied with him. I've spent some time perusing the site of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), along with Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). IAVA says we need to stay in Iraq and help it stabilize ("bring 'em home now is not only naive -- it's also possibly the cruelest and easiest way to screw up Iraq more than we already have," Rieckhoff says on page 308); this position is echoed by the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (EPIC). IVAW, on the other hand, supports an immediate withdrawal of all US troops, in part through the Appeal for Redress. I can see worthwhile arguments on both sides of this one.

I would also make the following points, however:
  1. The economic occupation of Iraq must end immediately. One of the reasons HalliBush was so eager to enter this war was the untold financial benefit it has brought to business interests in the US and elsewhere. Even if we were to bring all US troops home, it seems likely that resentment about our economic policy would continue to breed resentment and violence. On the flip side, keeping US troops to serve as a political stabilization would have a less explosive impact if there were no element of plunder involved.

    US Labor Against the War has good information on this, 50 Years is working on it, and -- as always -- please read Naomi Klein.

  2. We must choose between hegemony or survival. Although it is perhaps the most important concept surrounding this war and other conflicts in the Middle East, most Americans have no idea what hegemony is. We must acquaint ourselves with the history of the region (a point Rieckhoff makes passionately; they even conducted a "Kuwaiti Quiz Night" wherein they asked fellow soldiers about capital cities in the area, the names of elected officials, etc), and the (valid) fears of many people in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, etc that the US seeks to establish an unquestioned hegemony in the region.

  3. George W. Bush should be impeached. He conducted an illegal war of aggression, seeking out spurious evidence to support a desired invasion while ignoring plentiful countervailing information. We need accountability for the improper actions taken by our government; whether you wish to call them "lies" or "mistakes" strikes me as an academic distinction.
Man, I'm worn out. Why did I spend my Saturday morning on this stuff? I gotta go play some video games to unwind.

Next time: Killer robot update! I've got some scary stuff to report.


Guess the Logo! How well do you recognize corporate icons? I was surprised at how well I did.

Today I'm listening to: Eileen, sleeping on the couch!