Friday, September 01, 2006

Year of the Militias

This week’s firefight between the Mahdi Army militia and Iraq Army units in Diwaniyah and the month long war between Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon leave me with the distinct impression that the militias will not be easily defeated. Hezbollah demonstrated a high degree of proficiency and organization against the much more powerful Israeli Army, even luring Israeli tanks into a killing box ambush at one point. Hezbollah suffered serious losses in territory and fighters but showed a clear ability to stand against a much larger force. It’s clearly a force to be reckoned with, especially given that it is indigenous which gives it the power of defending members’ homes and families.

Compared to Lebanon, the Diwaniyah clash was small scale but showed the Iraqi Army to be less than potent. Polish troops and an American fighter bomber backed up the Iraqis. The Mahdi Army captured and executed Iraqi forces and remained in control of at least two neighborhoods at the end of the fighting. Definitely not a successful demonstration of BushCheney’s “Iraqis stand up, American forces stand down” strategy. Even more disconcerting is the prospect that this clash does not represent the efforts by an Iraqi national army against a militia but rather two militias fighting for control.
Diwaniyah is run politically by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and likely its police and security forces have been heavily infiltrated by the Iran-trained Badr Corps, the paramilitary of SCIRI.... So a lot of the struggle is probably actually best thought of as Mahdi Army on Badr Corps faction fighting. Although SCIRI and allies won the provincial elections of January, 2005, since then the Sadr movement has been gaining adherents and influence in this and other southern Shiite provinces. New provincial elections were scheduled but have never been held, in part for fear that the Sadrists would sweep to power in provincial statehouses.

Rather than creating a stable, democratic Iraq, BushCheney’s war of choice has opened a venue for factional infighting among Shi’ites, given birth to a determined Sunni resistance and created an environment where international jihadis can attack foreign and indigenous infidels. Hardly an opportune result.

The Iraqi militias will be more than difficult to eradicate. They are locals, based on tribal and sectarian loyalties and to a large degree, provide services and support that is not available from a weak central government. Iraq has always been more of a coerced federation than a nation, held together only by Strongman leaders. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, now that the Shi’ites have achieved power, the idea of an Iraqi nation seems very remote. Iraqis are standing up, alright, but they are pointing their weapons at each other.

With Hezbollah and Lebanon the situation is equally, if not more, complicated. Hezbollah grew out of resistance to the 18 year Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Its fighters are Lebanese, its representatives support Lebanese communities and it members are part of the Lebanese government. Now Hezbollah has demonstrated its ability to stand up to the Israeli military. Even if Israel gets its act together and strengthens its military, it cannot eradicate Hezbollah un less it is willing to re-occupy southern Lebanon, something its previous occupation showed to be untenable in the long run. Aerial bombing will not work.

Militias are a reality in the Middle East and represent forces that cannot be easily dismissed or marginalized. Neither the US nor Israel, with all their military might, can defeat the militias militarily or politically in the long run. Perhaps it is time that every one start talking seriously rather than hurling bullets and bombs.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Memorial Walk

Last week I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. The visit is my fourth, the first since 1988 and earlier visits in 1986 and 1983. I visit because the memorial remembers for me the war I fought. Those names are the fate that so easily could have been mine. At the Wall I imagine my life not lived. I recall the many friends, places, joys, sorrows and adventures that would not happen. Death in war leaves gaping holes in a nation, in life itself. I go to remember that lesson.

Following the path through the memorial is a linear metaphor for the war. My friend, Pat Doyle, and I enter from the east, walking into the glare and reflection of a late afternoon sun. The wall starts out very small, ankle-high. It grows as we descend. A few names to start, more and more with each panel. Now the panels are at eye level and soon they tower over us at the wall’s apex. Names and black granite taper to the horizon in each direction. Those many, many names seem to flow to this center. Here we are deep in the war, feeling its encompassing weight. We ascend toward the west, the wall diminishing with each step. Emerging from war. I feel a sense of relief that it’s over, that the war is behind me.

At the west entrance, I look back to see a simple form that commands attention. The black granite flows and moves, carving a small space for remembrance. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial works for me because of its simplicity. Names only. No rank. No service. No heroes. Just dead soldiers, the missing pieces of so many families. The memorial is a quiet honor. A martial statement would be out of place for the Vietnam war.

Visiting the memorial is not a cathartic or highly emotional experience for me. It has meaning, though. It recalls a tragic period for my nation that affected me very personally. These honored dead are my comrades. Like them, I served but I was fortunate enough to return. I feel a bit guilty that the spirits favored me and not them. I spot Deacon’s name high on Panel 4-W. I remember the day he died on that mountain. But mostly I am saddened by the war’s losses, America’s and Vietnam’s. Other than a salute, I give little outward sign of what The Wall and the war it memorializes means to me.

The memorial is busy but not crowded. My last two visits were after dark, only a few were there. Today I am among the late August tourists, visiting in a time of war and national frustration. A young Asian couple pose for photographs at the apex. For them the memorial is just another destination. They don’t seem particularly cognizant of the dead, just getting the picture. A visitor asks about the panel numbers and I explain how the memorial is organized. A large crowd of Chinese tourists follow a guide holding aloft a folded umbrella.

Pat and I head for the Korean War Memorial. The sculpture of a poncho-clad infantry patrol is visible at a distance. Up close, the figures are white-gray, with minimal detail. The stainless steel forms lean into their steps. Heads turn, scanning for danger. Ponchos flap in an eternal breeze. Faces and rifles are smooth–just enough size, shape and detail for definition. The eyes look vacant. The scene is haunting; it feels wet, foggy and cold even on this bright summer afternoon. The haunted, cold feeling seems right, given the nature the Korean War and the 53 year stalemate that has followed it. Behind the sculpture is a black granite wall, etched with scenes from the war. At this distance the images are sharp and clear. Closer, they are more abstract, also appropriate for this inconclusive war. In front of the sculpture, to the east, is a reflecting pool, a small gentle waterfall and war statistics. The overall feeling to me is hardship and sacrifice borne by a few in an uncertain cause. As John Prine sings, “We lost Davy in the Korean War/And I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.”

No uncertainty lurks at the World War II Memorial. It is brash, big and all encompassing. Much like the war it memorializes. Columns, arches, bas-reliefs, inscriptions, winged figures and laurel wreathes surround a shallow amphitheater with a reflecting pool and fountains arcing water into the pool. The entrance opens to the east, the Washington Monument and in the distance, the Capitol dome. The north side celebrates victory in the Atlantic-European theater, the south side celebrates Victory in the Pacific-Asia theater. It feels as if everything that could be incorporated into a memorial was incorporated here. The memorial is very busy–all that’s missing are a calliope and dancing bears.

I mean no disrespect when I say that but the scale and ambition of the World War II Memorial invites over-reaction. To me, at least. That may be a remnant of the hostility I felt toward veterans of this war, comfortably perched on the bar stools at VFW and American Legion posts, sending my generation to war in Vietnam. I resented them for putting me at risk for no good reason. My feelings toward these veterans only mellowed years later when I saw Edward Steichen’s photographs of naval operations in the Pacific. The photos showed these veterans to me as I was in my war–young, scared, determined. The images helped me see our common bond. Their support for the Vietnam War in the 1960's was simply part of who they were, the experiences that forged them.

Snark and memories aside, the World War II Memorial is appropriate. If Vietnam and Korea rate expression on the National Mall, then should not the incomparable effort of WWII? And I don’t think you can understate that effort. Nothing at this memorial is understated. Everything is there. My biggest objection to the memorial was that it would break up the mall, making large scale gatherings like the 1963 Civil Rights March or the 1969 Moratorium impossible. After walking the Mall and seeing the memorial, I think any mass demonstration would just engulf the memorial for the duration. It looked to me that plenty of space remains.

Returning to Vietnam Memorial, we locate the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, which is . part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and located in a nearby copse of trees. It is a sculpture of three women tending a wounded soldier. One cradles him, another kneels behind and the third looks skyward. My initial reaction is that it’s hokey, that the image is not real since it looks like a battlefield situation, hardly a common one for most women in Vietnam. But upon reflection, I think it works as a metaphor for women’s service in Vietnam: rescue, healing and comfort often under difficult and dangerous circumstances (See Linda Van Devanter’s Home Before Morning).

My biggest reservation about the Women’s Memorial is that it is needed at all. Women, like the rest of us veterans, are commemorated by the names on The Wall. But it’s easy to overlook their service–only eight women are among the names–hence the desire for a specific representation. I had the same reaction when the Three Soldiers statue was added. Suddenly the names had a specific image that was not always correct. So much better the abstraction of The Wall where all are individuals, equal in their sacrifice for the nation.

Pat and I make a final pass along The Wall, this time from the west. I look up two names from my hometown. In the process, I see a Navajo name and look up two other common Navajo names. We find all the names. Each recalls a memory.

Throughout the visit I wonder if a World War I memorial exists somewhere in Washington. Pat and I speculate on what a future Iraq-Afghanistan memorial will look like. Pat comments that the WWII Memorial is martial, in a way anticipating the “robust” militarism of the neo-conservatives. Maybe it’s an opportunity to counterbalance the quiet understatement of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

That would be a mistake. Vietnam sucked but it left this nation a legacy and a lesson. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a powerful reminder that war is death and loss only fully redeemed in the most extreme circumstances. We forget that lesson at our peril.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Old Lie

They’re at it again. The neo-conservatives and superpatriots are blaming their failures in Iraq on liberals, other critics and an insufficiently supportive media. Apparently, the critics are so powerful as to hobble the Most Powerful Military Force in the World and prevent it from achieving its foreordained objectives of Making the World Absolutely Safe For Americans. Perhaps the greatest casualty in BushCheney’s wars is Irony (although Truth is also in very critical condition). Here we have the architects of war who rushed the nation into a war based on lies, manipulated intelligence and egregiously optimistic planning now blaming the many who questioned the wisdom of the war at its outset for the failures of their own misbegotten policy.

The latest salvo is Donald Rumsfeld speaking to veterans in Salt Lake City yesterday.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warned yesterday that "moral and intellectual confusion" over the Iraq war and the broader anti-terrorism effort could sap American willpower and divide the country, and he urged renewed resolve to confront extremists waging "a new type of fascism."

Drawing parallels to efforts by some nations to appease Adolf Hitler before World War II, Rumsfeld said it would be "folly" for the United States to ignore the rising dangers posed by a new enemy that he called "serious, lethal and relentless."


He blamed the U.S. media for spreading "myths and distortions . . . about our troops and about our country."

He said a database search of U.S. newspapers produced 10 times as many mentions of a soldier punished for misconduct at Abu Ghraib prison than of Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith, a Medal of Honor recipient.

The remarks are as fanciful as they are ludicrous yet because they are issued by the Secretary of Defense they will be accorded some credibility by the media and a public that has remained stunningly ill-informed about America’s role in the Mid-East. Juan Cole as a good rebuttal to the “appeasement” charge. He notes that the neo-cons have twisted the language so that war is the only option even as experience has shown the world how false that belief really is.

What pisses me off about Rumsfeld’s words is how they simply replay the excuses for America’s military failure in Vietnam, which replays the Germans’ stabbed in the back mantra for World War I. It’s a classic story: national resolve and strength is compromised by critics and media who criticize the war. The fault never lies with the leaders who prosecute war but rather with those who question the war. It’s a neat trick and, unfortunately, works.

Apologists for the Vietnam war have made that case for over three decades. According to their interpretation, the anti-war left and the media defeated America in that war. There was no failure of policy, no compromised performance, not even a real adversary. No America’s loss in Vietnam was purely a liberal conspiracy as far as these apologists are concerned. The argument has a certain superficial appeal since it explains how a guerilla force could defeat a superpower military. What it requires, however, is complete ignorance of the political forces at work in Vietnam, that nation’s history, the skillful use of tactical and geographic advantages by nationalists fighting at home. No doubt a late 18th century British apologist would have offered the same excuse for his nation’s recent poor showing against a rag-tag rebel army.

Hearing Rumsfeld unlimber this line of attack tells me that, short of a radical change in government here, America will continue to blunder its way through Iraq at the cost of many more lives. The parallel with the Vietnam apologists saddens me. America seems to have forgotten the lesson of that war. Or maybe never really learned it. Knowing that I and other critics will be blamed for a war I knew was wrong from the start enrages me.

About that Medal of Honor. I read about it in the Washington Post when it was awarded. I'm pretty sure the Post had an article about the action even before that. The story of Sgt Smiths acition is riveting, an account of how one man prevented a larger force from breaking through to lightly armed medical aid station. I give Sgt Smith his due. But here’s what Rumsfeld and the other neo-cons don’t get: that heroism is what we expect. Not everyone wins the Medal of Honor but so very many risk their lives. That’s what soldiers do. It supports the mission. Abu Ghraib, on the other hand, compromises mission in ways that must be recognized if they will be avoided in the future. The actions of Americans at Abu Ghraib there did more damage to America than could be rectified by a 100 Sgt Smiths. THAT’s why it garners attention.

If Rumsfeld understood what was happening in Iraq, he would recognize this. He would also know where to assign responsibility for the fiasco in Iraq.

Monday, August 28, 2006

My John McCain Dilemma

John McCain has always been an opportunist. He and I began careers in Arizona about the same time, so he has been part of my political landscape for a quarter century. I watched him trade on his military service and family connections to become a safely entrenched Congressman in 1982. Four years later Barry Goldwater retired and McCain easily won his Senate seat. He's been safe and conventional ever since. So I don't trust him. Then I read something like this in the Washington Post Magazine profile of McCain:

Still, there are times when his passion boils over. "I get a little emotional when I see this nativist -- and that's the kindest word that I can use -- backlash" against illegal immigrants, he told a group of Republican activists and potential campaign donors in Miami one night in July. "Yes, they came here illegally; yes, they broke our laws; yes, they have to pay a penalty for doing that. But the thought of rounding up 11 million people and sending them back to the country they came from . . . is an insult to your intelligence and, frankly, a direct contradiction of what America's all about."

He was just warming up. "I have bitten my tongue until it's bleeding and said: Look, we want to reach out; we want to talk to our friends on the right; we need to have a dialogue; we all agree that the problem has got to be solved." But, he added, "I'm not interested in calling some soldier in Iraq and telling him that I'm deporting his parents. Under this House bill, if a young woman is illegally in the United States of America, and she is raped, and she goes to a rape counseling center, the people running the center are guilty of a felony. Is that what America is supposed to be about?

"I don't think so."
(emphasis added)

Almost makes me think I could trust this man.

UPDATE 08.30.06: Digby offers some additional thoughts to help resolve this dilemma.