Cynical Synapse

Fri, 07 Oct 2011

Global War on Terror 10 Years Later

US 10th Mountain Div. Soldiers in Afghanistan

Today marks the 10th anniversary since US forces began fighting in Afghanistan. It marks the start of the Global War on Terror and was a direct result of Taliban refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden, an issue that predated the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda’s leader was already wanted by the international community for embassy bombings in Africa and other terrorist acts.

I was glad I had not voted for Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential elections. There’s no doubt he wouldn’t have responded as decisively as George W. Bush, who started off right. (Concerning the distraction that became Operation Iraqi Freedom—which I was no in favor of—that’s for another post.) In Afghanistan, US forces, along with those from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, completely ousted the Taliban from power within 2 months. The hunt for bin Laden was on and efforts to build a stable Afghan government began.

Pres. Karzai opens session of Afghan Parliament

What do we have to show after 10 years at war?

Is our national security better off? The verdict is still out, and it’s a subject for much debate. From my view, we’re about even. China’s rise as a world power and the Arab Spring have certainly changed the geopolitical landscape, on which Russia is still a somewhat contrary power not to be discounted. We have less to fear from international terrorists and terror organizations, but a growing trend in so-called homegrown radicals means we must stay vigilant. To counter international and domestic threats, we have willingly surrendered freedoms in exchanged for a perception of security.
 


 

Tue, 13 Sep 2011

How Not to Be an Islamophobe

Filed under: Afghanistan, Behavior, Global War on Terror, Iraq, Islamophobia, Military — cynicalsynapse @ 8:34 pm
US, Afghan forces greet kidsU.S. Air Force Senior Airman Lauren Everett, medic attached to Laghman Provincial Reconstruction Team, greets a group of children in Alisheng district, Laghman province, Sept. 12. The PRT, partnered with the security forces assistant team and the Afghan National Police, patrolled through a village to talk to the locals and teach the ANP proper procedures during patrols.
Defense Video and Image Distribution System (DVIDS)

An excellent post from Attackerman: first, be a combat veteran:

What follows is pure and unadulterated speculation. I can’t prove what I’m about to contend. I have no data, no studies, no statistically-relevant sample. Just anecdotes and a hunch.

The least Islamophobic cohort in American society — except of course, for Muslims themselves — consists of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans between the ages of 25 and 40.

I’m basing this entirely on my interactions with combat vets over the years — both downrange and back here in the States. It would be easy — lazy, even — to expect them to harbor blood-curdling hatred of Muslims. The insurgents they fought deliberately blended in with the populace, after all.

Some of them came to war harboring precisely such hatred. They wanted to avenge 9/11, and the average Iraqi or Afghan would do. Not all did, but it would be a whitewash to ignore that some did. I had a long and mournful conversation with one such officer in Mosul in 2007.

Then something unexpected happened. They got familiar with Afghans and Iraqis. “Local nationals” translated for them. They met with local dignitaries and heard plaintive cries for help. They heard locals express bitterness and outrage over the million indignities of war. They found themselves understanding. Then sympathizing. Then wanting to help.

And then they found something more powerful than sympathy: mutual interest. They learned that they couldn’t do anything significant in their unfamiliar stretches of a foreign country without the aid — or at least the acquiescence, or apathy — of the locals. A choice between working together or failing was no choice at all.

Some even made friends. Iraqis and Afghans, especially those who work as interpreters or intelligence analysts, often have wonderfully vile and profane senses of humor. (In my experience, this is truer for Iraqis than Afghans, but not unheard-of for Afghans, either.) A dirty joke, a bullshit boast and an unspeakably nasty DVD or video game can bond people in warzones for life.

Suddenly, those same Americans who barely even knew any Muslims back home — didn’t know that Allah is just the Arabic word for the exact same God many of them worship — wanted to know more about Iraqi or Afghan culture. It didn’t seem so unfamiliar; or if it did, it was the kind of unfamiliarity that posed an appealing challenge to understand. They wanted to debate about the world with the locals, and didn’t even mind when the locals debated back and challenged basic points about America.

Some came home and kept up a correspondence with their new friends. Some took classes about the Middle East or South Asia to contextualize their experience. Some didn’t come home at all.

Obviously, there are exceptions here. I have no illusion that this a universal experience of two searing wars. I know combat veterans who have neither love nor hate in their hearts for Muslims, just… emptiness.

But ever since last year’s “Ground Zero Mosque” flap, it’s struck me that the Robert Spencers and the Pamela Gellars and the lot of them don’t have their stock veterans to trot out in service of the idea that the mosque down the street is a threat to your grandmother. I do not believe that is an accident.

Most non-Muslim Americans don’t have many interactions with their Muslim neighbors. Or if they do, it’s not an issue. I grew up in Brooklyn, one of the most diverse places in the U.S., and it only occurred to me after 9/11 that one of the members of my high school crew was a Muslim. Combat veterans had perhaps the most self-conscious familiarity with Iraqis and Afghans of all Americans. They had no other option.

And many, if not most, came home understanding that Muslims aren’t so different. Muslims don’t have heat vision. They’re not implacably opposed to freedom and all that shit. They’re not looking to join a terrorist group, and “proto-terrorism” doesn’t lurk in their hearts.

Like I said, I can’t prove any of this. It’s all anecdotal. But the more I think about it, the truer it seems. I can’t think of anyone who came home from Iraq or Afghanistan more furious at the average Muslim, which is perhaps of the most surprising and profound aspects of the 9/11 Era.

HT: Doctine Man!!

Previously on Islamophobia:

Fri, 26 Aug 2011

Citizenship by Proxy?

2d BN 503d IN Scouts pull overwatch above the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan

Regular readers know I’m a member of the Michigan Army National Guard. I personally know a lot of people who have served on the front lines in the Global War on Terror. Some have had 3 or more deployments. So, for me, this whole thing is personal.

My personal view is I don’t believe we had any business in Iraq. I think it was a personal vendetta of George W. Bush’s to avenge his father’s failure to kill Saddam Husein. That said, once we went there, it became critical we saw it through. There are plenty of analogies of “unfinished business” requiring considerable follow-up action.

As for the warfight in Afghanistan, it’s more clear to me, even 10 years after the Global War on Terror began. As far as I’m concerned, the Taliban cannot have any significant measure of power. These are, after all, the same clowns that allowed Bin Laden and his cronies to launch their 9/11 attacks.

While, for me, it’s easy to view the issues in such clear black-and-white, the reality on the ground is more gray. And, so it is from the political perspective, as well. William Deresiewicz raises such concerns in his essay An Empty Regard:

No symbol is more sacred in American life right now than the military uniform. The cross is divisive; the flag has been put to partisan struggle. But the uniform commands nearly automatic and universal reverence. In Congress as on television, generals are treated with awed respect, service members spoken of as if they were saints. Liberals are especially careful to make the right noises: obeisance to the uniform having become the shibboleth of patriotism, as anti-Communism used to be. Across the political spectrum, throughout the media, in private and public life, the pieties and ritual declarations are second nature now: “warriors,” “heroes,” “mission”; “our young men and women in uniform,” “our brave young men and women,” “our finest young people.” So common has this kind of language become, we scarcely notice it anymore.

There is no question that our troops are courageous and selfless. They expose themselves to inconceivable dangers under conditions of enormous hardship and fight because they want to keep the country safe. We owe them respect and gratitude — even if we think the wars they’re asked to fight are often wrong. But who our service members are and the work their images do in our public psyche, our public discourse, and our public policy are not the same. Pieties are ways to settle arguments before they begin. We need to question them, to see what they’re hiding.

The new cult of the uniform began with the call to “support our troops” during the Iraq war. The slogan played on a justified collective desire to avoid repeating the mistake of the Vietnam era, when hatred of the conflict spilled over into hostility toward the people who were fighting it. Now the logic was inverted: supporting the troops, we were given to understand, meant that you had to support the war. In fact, that’s all it seemed to mean. The ploy was a bait and switch, an act of emotional blackmail. If you opposed the war or questioned the way it was conducted, you undermined our troops.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on, other purposes have come into play. The greater the sacrifice that has fallen on one small group of people, the members of the military and their families, the more we have gone from supporting our troops to putting them on a pedestal. In the Second World War, everybody fought. Soldiers were not remote figures to most of us; they were us. Now, instead of sharing the burden, we sentimentalize it. It’s a lot easier to idealize the people who are fighting than it is to send your kid to join them. This is also a form of service, I suppose: lip service.

The cult of the uniform also bespeaks a wounded empire’s need to reassert its masculinity in the wake of 9/11. “Dead or alive,” “bring it on,” “either you’re with us or you’re against us”: the tenor of official rhetoric in the ensuing years embodied a kind of desperate machismo. The war in Iraq, that catharsis of violence, expressed the same emotional dynamic. We’d been hit in the head with a rock; like a neighborhood bully, we grabbed the first person we could get our hands on and beat him senseless. Mission accomplished: we were strong again, or so we imagined, and the uniform — as George W. Bush understood when he swaggered across the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit — was the symbol of that strength. The soldier is the way we want to see ourselves: stoic, powerful, focused, devoted.

This helps explain why the souring of the wars failed to tarnish the military’s reputation. There seems little doubt that our armed forces today are more professional, and at the small-unit level, at least, more effective, than they were in Vietnam. Still, Iraq descended into stalemate, and Afghanistan gives little hope, 10 years on, of ever being anything else. Does the fault lie with our civilian leadership alone, or with our client states? Do “our brave young men and women fulfill every mission we ask them to,” as the catechism goes? These are not rhetorical questions; these are the real questions that we haven’t been willing to ask ourselves. At the very least, our generals ought surely to come in for some criticism — as they did, when it was appropriate, in other wars. And yet the cult of the uniform has immunized them from blame, and inoculates the rest of us from thought.

There are other questions. Has the military really ceased to be the big, bumbling bureaucracy it was always taken to be? And if it is supremely efficient now, is that because there’s something uniquely effective about its command structure and values — a frequent implication these days — or rather because we’ve given it a blank check? Is America the world’s cop, as we like to say, or is our military something more like an imperial police force? (When it comes to places like Darfur or Ivory Coast, which are not felt to threaten national security interests, we leave the dirty work to someone else.)

It seems extremely unlikely anything like My Lai has taken place in Iraq or Afghanistan, but there have been some terrible crimes: the abuses at Abu Ghraib; the premeditated gang rape of a 14-year-old girl in Mahmudiya, Iraq, and the murder of her family; the executions of Afghan civilians by the self-described “kill team” from the 5th Stryker Brigade. Only the first has been widely discussed, likely because there were pictures. How many more of these have there been? Maybe none, maybe a significant number: until we ask—until we want to ask—we’ll never know.

As the national narrative shifts from the war on terror to the specter of decline, the uniform performs another psychic function. The military is can-do, the one institution — certainly the one public institution — that still appears to work. The schools, the highways, the post office; Amtrak, FEMA, NASA and the T.S.A. — not to mention the banks, the newspapers, the health care system, and above all, Congress: nothing seems to function anymore, except the armed forces. They’re like our national football team—and undisputed champs, to boot—the one remaining sign of American greatness.

The term most characteristically employed, when the cult of the uniform is celebrated, is “heroes.” Perhaps no word in public life of late has been more thoroughly debased by overuse. Soldiers are “heroes”; firefighters are “heroes”; police officers are “heroes” — all of them, not the special few who undoubtedly deserve the term. So unthinking has the platitude become that someone referred to national park rangers on public radio recently as “heroes” — reflexively, in passing — presumably since they wear uniforms, as well. Stephen Colbert picked up on this phenomenon long ago, which is why he slyly refers to his viewers—and now, to the donors to his Super PAC—by the same term.

“Heroes,” like “support our troops,” was also deployed early, in Iraq. Within a couple of weeks, we were treated to the manufactured heroism of Jessica D. Lynch, the young supply clerk who was rescued from an Iraqi hospital a few days after her capture by enemy forces (both events turning out to be far less cinematic than initially put out) and who finally felt compelled to speak out against her own use as an instrument of propaganda. In the case of Pat Tillman, the former professional football player who died the following year in Afghanistan by friendly fire, not in an ambush as originally claimed, it was left to his family to expose the lies with which the Army surrounded him. The irony is that our soldiers are the last people who are likely to call themselves heroes and are apparently very uncomfortable with this kind of talk. The military understands itself as a group endeavor. As the West Point professor Elizabeth D. Samet recently noted, service members feel uneasy when strangers approach them to—as the well-meaning but oddly impersonal ritual goes—thank them for their service, thereby turning them into paradoxically anonymous celebrities. It was wrong to demonize our service members in Vietnam; to canonize them now is wrong as well. Both distortions make us forget that what they are are human beings.

What is heroism? What kind of psychological purpose does the concept serve? Heroism is bravery and selflessness, but more than that, it is triumphant action, and in particular, morally unambiguous action. In most of life — and certainly in public life — there is scarcely such a thing on either count. Politics is a muddle of moral and practical compromise. Victories are almost always partial, ambiguous and subject to reversal. Heroism belongs to the realm of fantasy—the comic book, the action movie—or to delimited and often artificial spheres of action, like space exploration or sports.

The Marine who saves his buddies in a firefight, the cop who rescues a child from a well—the challenges they face are clear and simple and isolated from the human mess. Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who successfully landed an airliner in the Hudson River, was, everyone agreed, a hero. But note how frequently the element of salvation or rescue comes up when we talk about heroism. It was a beautiful coincidence that Captain Sullenberger’s moment came just five days before the last presidential inauguration, for heroism and rescue were the subtext of Barack Obama’s campaign, especially for his legions of young believers. He was the one we’d been waiting for; you could almost imagine the “S” on his chest, underneath the suit. (Once in office, of course, he descended into the muddle, and showed himself a mortal after all.) Heroes are daddies: larger-than-life figures, unimpeachably powerful and good, who save us from evil and hurt.

“America needs heroes,” it is sometimes said, a phrase that’s often uttered in a wistful tone, almost cooingly, as if we were talking about a lonely child. But do we really “need heroes”? We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead. The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters, he argues, embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators. What we really need, in other words, is a swift kick in the pants.

Sun, 07 Aug 2011

Honoring the Warriors Shot Down by the Taliban

Filed under: Afghanistan, Allies, Global War on Terror, Heroes, History, Military, National security, Terrorism — cynicalsynapse @ 1:20 pm

Revs. Jackson and Sharpton

Yesterday, I had the priviledge of attending the 1225th CSSB’s homecoming ceremony at the Detroit Light Guard Armory. The Combat Sustainment Support Battalion was deployed in August 2010 to Afghanistan. These Soldiers set logistical support records and earned a Meritorious Unit Citation. More importantly, everyone came home without serious injury. I served many years in that Battalion and personally know several of the Soldiers in the unit. I’m proud of them!

I was truly saddened when I learned the Taliban shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing all 38 on board in eastern Afghanistan. Those killed were 30 US military personnel, including 20 Navy SEALs, 7 Afghan special forces, and a civilian interpreter, who is most likely also Afghan. These heroes paid the ultimate price in the service and defense of their countrymen. The Commander of International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF), Gen. John Allen summed it up best:

No words describe the sorrow we feel in the wake of this tragic loss. All of those killed in this operation were true heroes who had already given so much in the defense of freedom. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families who are now waiting for their loved ones to return home. We will do everything in our power to support them in this time of need. We also mourn the loss of our heroic Afghan partners who fight with us shoulder to shoulder, every day.

Afghan National Policeman on guard

Far more Afghans than most people realize have taken the risk, for themselves and their families, to serve with the Afghan National Army and National Police. Do some have ulterior motives. Certainly, but so do some of our service members, such as Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan. Those who question Afghan resolve should talk with some of my comrade who have been there mentoring Afghan Army and Police, unanimously described to me as rewarding experiences.

We mistakenly assess things from our very ethnocentric perspective. Afghanistan is a poor country with minimal infrastructure, traditions of tribalism instead of a central government, and proud people whose culture includes very little of what comprises our culture. None of that is wrong; it’s just different.

Afghan National Army soldiers marching

Lest anyone forget, the Taliban harbored bin Laden and al Qaeda when they were in charge in Afghanistan. This sanctuary allowed al Qaeda to plan and conduct the attacks on 9/11.

If we do not ensure a stable Afghanistan, capable of preventing the Taliban from reasserting itself, we will end up recommiting US forces at some future point. It will cost less blood and treasure to finish the job now than it will to start over again.

Regarding the propaganda coup for the Taliban in killing these highly trained special operations warriors, I’m angry. If reports they were members of sEAL Team 6 are true, the Taliban gets twice the bragging rights. It, in no way, dimishes the sacrifice and patriotism of our warriors, however. And it will not even dent our progress toward success as long as we maintain our political resolve. Even thouh we now call it Overseas Contingency Operations, we are still fighting the Global War on Terror.
 

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