Saturday, June 17, 2006

In Memory of Frank B. Fleming

My father, Frank Fleming, was born 100 years ago today. He was a third generation pharmacist from Shippensburg, Pennsylvania and served as a US Army medical services admistrator in Liberia during World War II, a white officer in a largely African-American unit. He married my mother, Katherine Pie' after the war and managed Peoples Drug stores in Pennsylvania and Virginia. He died in 1962, age 56 and is buried in the Danville, Virginia National Cemetery. My mother is buried beside him.

[update:] My brother has a longer post about our father here.

Friday, June 16, 2006


“Just a number” said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow as the United States recorded its 2,500th death in Iraq. That phrase has ricocheted in my head for about 24 hours, like shrapnel that just won’t come to rest. I can’t think of a more contemptuous statement about American servicemen and servicewomen in Iraq, except maybe to say that they look forward to killing Iraqis (not true by any means). More than anything else, Snow’s dismissive words reflect the lack of any real feeling for the men and women BushCheney has sent to war.

Here is another little noted difference between Iraq and Vietnam. BushCheney and his minions display no grief or feeling toward the casualties they have caused. Whatever his other faults, I think Lyndon Johnson felt the pain of soldiers’ deaths; he regularly reviewed casualty reports and wept openly when talking about them with others. For this administration, casualties are “numbers”, the cost of doing business.

I take it personally. Had I been killed in Vietnam, I would have been among the 2,357 who died there in 1971. That would put me somewhere between numbers 53,841 and 56,198, (probably toward the lower end of the range since I was company clerk and relatively safe during the last half of my tour). However little my service contributed to America’s security, I don’t think my family and friends would have appreciated a Tony Snow glossing over my death as a statistic.

Fortunately, I didn’t die but others did. While I knew only a few of them, they were all individuals whose lives were lost in a pointless war that had nothing to do with America’s security. Just like Iraq . Remember too, that 1971 was the year American forces significantly withdrew from Vietnam. My commander welcomed me and the other newbies to Alpha Company with the greeting that “none of us should be among the last to die in Vietnam.” Despite the sentiment, almost 2,400 Americans died that year. Lost lives not numbers.

So Tony Snow’s words and the attitudes they reflect bother me immensely. I am no longer at risk but others are and a large part of me is there with them. I won’t die in Iraq but I understand what it means to risk life and limb for my country. I expect the leaders who put these men and women in harm’s way to show them far more respect.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Making Contact

YearlyKos was many things for me: seeing people who, up to now, have only been names on my computer screen, meeting so many, many more, information, ideas and even some training, a good party, the chance to attend the first ever conference of its kind. In all, a lot of fun, worth the 300 mile drive Arizona summer heat from Phoenix to Las Vegas. YearlyKos was also my first opportunity to see and talk to this generation’s veterans. I attended a panel on Iraq Veterans on the War and Returning Home and to see The War Tapes, the stunning documentary about Iraq combat.

The panel was organized by Paul Reickhoff, Iraq veteran and executive director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Association (). Panelists included Zack Bazzi, one of the New Hampshire National Guard who filmed The War Tapes, Abbie Pickett, National Guard who spent a year as a refuel logistician in Iraq, and Perry Jefferies, retired first sergeant 20 year veteran and IAVA outreach director. The four were a microcosm of America’s military serving in Iraq–young and older (none looked particularly old), men and women, officer and enlisted, Guard and Regular. I heard much that was familiar from my Vietnam service thirty-five years ago–combat has an eternal universality–and much that was wholly different.

Perhaps the most noticeable similarity was their sense of returning from the war to a nation “not at war”, the “tremendous disconnect” between the hard reality of combat and a country more concerned with celebrity babies and injured race horses. That is no different from 1971 and a war that, like Iraq, affected relatively few. Iraq veterans are as bewildered as I at the normality of life even as our own lives have been distorted by war. Returning Iraqi veterans also face a Veterans Administration ill-equipped to serve their needs. That’s no different either; the VA in the 70's was unable to deal with the mental and physical needs of Vietnam vets. Horror stories about VA hospitals, where patients had to bribe orderlies to change bedpans and dressings, made me hope I never would.

Iraq and Afghanistan vets have been promised more and the Veterans Administration has proved it can deliver. The health care that I feared in the 1970's improved dramatically in the 90's. VA facilities and capabilities are among the nation’s best. Reickhoff called it a “model” health care system that BushCheney is dismantling even as demand grows due to his wars. The entire nation claims to “support the troops” but that fine sentiment means little to the men and women who return injured only to find a VA that ignores them or places them on hold for months–as it did to Abbie Pickett–because inadequate funding. The panelists were disappointed and angry at how the nation is failing the men and women it sends to war.

Reickhoff, Bazzie, Pickett and Jefferies are not anti-war veterans, at least when they speak as IAVA representatives. The anti-war veterans are at Iraq Veterans Against the War. IAVA’s mission is to help soldiers make the transition from combat to civilian life and to prod the nation to honor its commitment to those injured in service to their country. As for Operation Iraqi Freedom, none of the panelists spoke against it directly. Reickhoff stated that America has no good options in Iraq yet has an obligation to fix what we created. All agreed that the war is taxing our military heavily, a burden that the military will not be able to sustain. Jefferies spoke of the lost and destroyed equipment that goes unreplaced, putting soldiers at even greater risk. “You can’t spin a broken truck or a dead person,” he said. For the most part, IAVA focuses on keeping Americans informed about the full costs of indefinite war and ensuring real support for men and women making the difficult transition back to civilian life.

Their efforts are bringing timely attention to the problems that were too long ignored among Vietnam veterans, a collective amnesia that refused to acknowledge Agent Orange or post traumatic stress syndrome until veterans and their supporters forced the issue. IAVA is forcing health and welfare issues for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans now. They don’t want to wait decades for service they need immediately.

A few hours later, I saw The War Tapes. In this intimate look at Iraq combat I saw much that was similar to Vietnam: the black humor, war fought in the homes, yards and places of a civilian population, the chaos of combat, the rattle of small arms, the thud of heavy machine guns, the shock of death and injury. All too real and no different from three decades before. What is different was the sense of camaraderie among soldiers trained and deployed to Iraq as a unit instead of the constant rotation of individual soldiers who had to learn on the job in Vietnam. Also different is the Iraq veterans’ search for meaning in their war, something I neither expected nor found. Vietnam was just something that happened to me. These guys want meaning. They are right to hope for meaning because it goes some way to redeem war’s brutality. America’s World War II combatants certainly experienced much the same horror as soldiers in later wars; I’m convinced that most were able to find sufficient meaning in the war’s result to feel their sacrifices were warranted. I hope Iraq veterans will be able to do so as well. I fear the odds are against them.

Two scenes particularly moved me. I shared the pride when the company received its Combat Infantryman Badges. It reminded me how proud I was to earn mine, to prove myself in my unchosen, unexpected occupation. It puts me in good company, however, questionable my war. The company’s homecoming to New Hampshire also moved me. I don’t think it was envy at the contrast with my solitary return on a redeye flight from San Francisco to DC. I think it was seeing their joy and their families’ joy at their return, that whatever horrors lay in the past year, the soldiers were home, safe from the war. For the moment, at least. Any difficulties lay in the future.

YearlyKos gave me a chance to meet and connect with a new generation of Veterans. It helped me understand that while we share the experience of combat, our experiences are different. Our wars are different. I cannot presume that their views will reflect mine on all issues about the war and military service. What I can do is welcome them home and support their efforts to heal the wounds incurred in service to America.

And hope against the lessons of human history that they will be the last generation of American war veterans.

Traveling Man

A dead Zarqawi, a government in Iraq after six months of wrangling and a presidential visit to Baghdad are the components of BushCheney’s latest “turnaround” in Iraq. Americans will, no doubt, be pleased at the prospects offered by events. Iraqis, especially Iraqi nationalists will see more death and destruction, a weak government with little legitimacy and the presence of a foreign Occupier, all invitations to continue fighting. In the long run, Americans will see little change unless BushCheney is able to use them as cover to begin withdrawing American forces. If he’s smart, he will. There seems to be a growing consensus that the US military cannot maintain its current level of combat for much longer. (See Barry McCaffrey’s recent remarks on Meet the Press.

NPR’s reporter traveling with the presidential party said that the Baghdad visit was designed to build some momentum on recent positive events. He quoted aides who contrasted this visit, where BushCheney traveled to the Green Zone with the 2003 Thanksgiving Turkey visit, in the dark and restricted to the American air base in Baghdag. They call that Progress. I call it pretty damn lame for all that blood and treasure. No democracy, freedom, stability or security but senior American officials can travel between fortified strongholds in Iraq after three years. That’s worse than Vietnam in the day. Americans could travel in many areas by (day at least) with minimal risk. I did. An American trying that in today’s Iraq would be on a suicide mission.

Juan Cole describes the “parlous situation” surrounding BushCheney’s visit to Iraq.

The president of the United States, who supposedly conquered the country three years ago, had to keep his visit secret even from the prime minister he was going to visit, until five minutes before their meeting. That tells me Bush's people don't trust Nuri al-Maliki very far. In fact, apparently Bush's people don't trust Bush's people very far-- only Cheney and Condi are said to have known about the trip in the US. And, Air Force One had to land after a sharp bank, to throw off any potential shoulder-held missile launchers in the airport area. The president couldn't go to the Green Zone in a motorcade, for fear of car bombs, but had to be helicoptered in....Bush left after night fell to return to Washington. The plane left at a steep angle with its lights out and the shades drawn.

Three years ago, BushCheney posed with a fake turkey. This time with a newly-minted Iraqi government. I doubt this latest photo-op will have any more long term significance than the last.

[Update at 16:12 MST:] Another view on the Baghdad road trip is here. And, yes, I did mean Mountain Standard Time. Arizonans not living on the Navajo Reservation do not participate in DST. We're strange like that.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Safe Sex from the Great White North

The Galloping Beaver has an interesting post on codom distribution and use in the Canadian military.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Honor and Death

Just in case you didn’t hear me say this before, I’ll repeat. Killing civilians is wrong. Always. To be avoided at all costs. Killing civilians may not be a criminal act (in the context of war) but it is always wrong. War is bad enough without harming non-combatants–often the very people we are protecting–so it’s never right to kill them. Unavoidable perhaps but still wrong.

That’s why the Washington Post account of the Haditha killings as described by the Marine squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich disturbs me. Sgt. Wuterich says he followed the rules of engagement in describing his actions in Haditha November 19. If so, those rules authorize tossing grenades and firing indiscriminately into rooms full of people, “running and gunning” in Marine parlance. Reading the account, I got the sense of cold. methodical procedure: kick door open, toss grenade, enter with guns firing. And it works, few will survive such an assault. One Marine says “It may be bad tactics, but it works. It keeps you alive.”

Following Sgt. Wuterich’s logic, he did his job which, on that day, had tragic consequences, recognized at the time by his commanders but appropriate for the situation. There lies the crux of the debate. Under the circumstances, what should the Marines have done differently? I, for one, want them to verify targets before shooting but that hesitation may offer the enemy an opportunity to kill or escape. Do we put our soldiers at risk to spare civilians?

That’s rarely the choice, though. In Haditha the rooms were full of civilians. The Marines were at minimal risk. But in the heat of battle, after an attack that killed one of your men, how much risk will I ask the Marines to take?. My answer is, as little as possible. I want to draw the line at tossing a grenade into a room of people without verifying who they are but it’s hard to do if I think they may be prepared to kill me. In the end if anyone must take more risk, it’s the Marines, not the civilians.

I know that sounds like I want Americans to die but hear me out. Soldiers are combatants, “citizens of Death’s gray land”. Their job is to close with and kill an enemy. They are trained in death’s procedures and tactics. Every soldier risks death, that’s the nature of the job. A civilian is simply living in his home, defenseless. That the enemy hides among the civilian population does not give license to kill civilians. If the Marines followed rules of engagement clearing the area where they were attacked, the sergeant, he may be free of criminal responsibility but the country that approved the rules will be guilty of the civilian deaths.

The risk to the combatant is part of what gives combat–organized murder–a what little honor it possesses. Making the extra effort to spare civilians, even at risk to oneself or his men, redeems some of the savagery of combat. In battle, we honor those who risk their lives for their buddies. That is acceptable, but doing the same for innocent civilians is little recognized. Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who put himself between American soldiers and civilians at My Lai was ignored and shunned for 30 years before his country recognized and honored his bravery ().

As I began this essay, I stipulated that killing civilians is wrong. Inevitable in war but still wrong. Honor lies in recognizing and acting on this moral imperative. The higher the civilian death toll due to America’s actions in Iraq, the greater our nation’s dishonor and shame.

for the record

As a combatant would I give my life to save a civilian? Would I be willing to be the first Marine to enter a room of unknown persons without first rendering them incapable of harming me? My answer, from the entirely safe vantage of my keyboard, is “yes”. If the rules call for me to verify a target before shooting, I would. That’s my job. I should be sufficiently trained and disciplined to do that job. If the rules allow me to assault unknown persons with grenade and rifle, I would do that, too.

I know because that’s how I went to Vietnam: with a great deal of fatalism and moral neutrality. The fatalism numbed my fear and helped me survive each day of combat. The neutrality allowed me to do my job. I was mercifully spared the dilemmas faced by the Americans in Vietnam then or Americans now in Iraq but the neutrality has haunted me ever since. That’s how I know killing civilians is wrong.