23 December 2009


No, I'm not taking cheap shots at individuals serving their country. Rather, I'm sickened and outraged by the decisions of commanders and civilian policy-makers, past and present. Let me explain.

ITEM ONE. Major General Tony Cucolo, the new U.S. military commander in northern Iraq, has created a furor by announcing stiff penalties for troops who commit infractions ranging from gambling and using drugs to stealing historic artifacts and selling weapons and .... becoming pregnant, or causing another soldier to become pregnant. The NYTimes reported that Cucolo wants his 22,000 troops to think before they act, and to understand that a pregnancy removes a soldier from the battlefield. He has proposed penalties including courts martial and being returned to the U.S. -- the latter for female soldiers only, not for the male soldiers who impregnate females. Say WHAT? Cucolo may be backing down from his earlier announcement of penalties to be imposed. Details are lacking.

It is not uncommon for a new commander to assert his/her authority by presenting a strict, by-the-book persona. On the other hand, we're in the 21st century, deploying a mixed-gender military whose members are only human, especially in inhuman circumstances like an unjustifiable war. So far seven soldiers (four women and three men) have fallen victim to the Cucolo's ruling. Speaking as one who has supervised mixed gender groups ranging from 10 to 60, I've always found that education and understanding are much more productive than a bludgeon, even in a military setting.

ITEM TWO. I watched the movie Taxi to the Dark Side yesterday. The 2007 Academy Award-winning documentary examines how military interrogators illegally detained, tortured, extradited, imprisoned, and in some cases murdered hundreds of Afghan civilians over the past decade, under direct orders from the highest levels of government during the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld (BCR) administration. The film was graphic, raw, and disturbing on many levels -- but every person who is concerned about human rights, and every person who thinks of him/herself as a patriot, should see this movie. We think of ourselves as a civilized species and a civilized nation, yet we persist, when presented the opportunity, in indulging in barbarism in the name of freedom, madness in the name of security. Note: of all those arrested and tortured and dehumanized, not even 5% proved to have any connection with Al Qaeda or terrorist activities. During all that time, while the BCR triumvirate was stonewalling and pontificating, and oh yes by the way mentioning a few "bad apples", it was those very three who were formulating and approving behavior which violates every concept of human dignity, not to mention numerous U.S. and international laws governing the humane treatment of prisoners. Yet only low-ranking individuals were ever successfully prosecuted. Echoes of My Lai, only this time there was no Hugh Thompson to step forward and forcefully intervene.

War exacts a bizarre and violent toll on the human psyche. All the more reason for supreme caution before entering a state of war, and all the more reason for a meaningful system of oversight by both military and civilian leadership. Instead the skunks were running the henhouse -- skunks who, by the way, had never served on active duty in wartime themselves.

I was against both Iraq wars -- they were transparently about oil and vengeance, not about spreading the values of democracy and freedom. I'm also against the current, escalating deployments to Afghanistan. Did we learn nothing from Vietnam? The response to insurgency is counterinsurgency, not conventional masses of troops. Our successful use of Army Special Forces and Delta operatives in Afghanistan proved that. In fact, our own Revolutionary War proved that. Some people never learn, or simply don't want to.
In the context of prisoner interrogation, it is a long-established fact that torture does not work. Eventually the detainee will say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear. Value of information obtained -- zero. It is of far greater value (though more time-consuming) to gain the subject's trust, to help him safeguard his family, to treat him with simple human dignity and respect. The FBI interrogators in Iraq and Afghanistan knew that, but they were supplanted by CIA and military interrogators with a different, more malicious, and far less useful mindset.

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