Sunday, April 15, 2007

Heroes and Villains

Heroes and villains
Just see what you've done

-- Brian Wilson

Among the things I hate most about the nature of the woebegone wars we're fighting now is how easily our troops can become the bad guys. The New York Times recently reported on yet another collateral damage incident, this time in Afghanistan.
KABUL, Afghanistan, April 14--American marines reacted to a bomb ambush with excessive force in eastern Afghanistan last month, hitting groups of bystanders and vehicles with machine-gun fire in a series of attacks that covered 10 miles of highway and left 12 civilians dead, including an infant and three elderly men, according to a report published by an Afghan human rights commission on Saturday…

…One victim, a newly married 16-year-old girl, was cut down while she was carrying a bundle of grass to her family’s farmhouse, according to her family and the report. A 75-year-old man walking to his shop was hit by so many bullets that his son said he did not recognize the body when he came to the scene.

The incident took place on March 4 in Nangarhar Province. The military began an investigation shortly afterwards, and is now considering criminal charges against the Marines involved. I have no interest in condemning or condoning those Marines, and have no means of doing so. The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission report on the incident condemned the suicide bomb attack that started things, but also said that: “In failing to distinguish between civilians and legitimate military targets, the U.S. Marine Corps Special Forces employed indiscriminate force. Their actions thus constitute a serious violation of international humanitarian standards.”

That might be true, but it appears that the Commission's report is largely based on anecdotal evidence from eyewitnesses. Eyewitness reports are seldom reliable, and we have no way of knowing the underlying motives of these particular eyewitnesses, most of whom are families and friends of the victims and who may or may not have direct or indirect connections with al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban. That the U.S. military is in the final stages of approving condolence payments to the families of the killed and wounded doesn't tell us much. We've been doing that sort of thing for a long, long time.

But the outrage among Afghanis seems to be genuine. “This is not an isolated case,” said Nader Nadery, deputy director of the human rights commission. Nadery said this incident and others like it are defeating the U.S. goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghani people away from the Taliban. I'll second that sentiment.

Administrative Nightmare

The Afghan commission's report has been forwarded to Admiral William Fallon, chief of Central Command, for review. That's just the kind of administrative headache Fallon and his staff need right now. They're already presiding over two failed wars, some kind of murky monkey business or other in Somalia, plus the possibility of an air and maritime operation against Iran.

The Marines involved in the Nangarhar Province incident are still in theater, but the rest of their 120-man company has been pulled out of the country. The entire company will no doubt be subjected to intense scrutiny over the affair, and its morale and readiness will suffer for it. Platoons of rear echelon merry fellows will wipe out mighty forests coming up with lessons learned and corrective training syllabi that no one will ever read.

The Marines under investigation may get a fair shake from the military justice system and they may not. Military justice is always a crapshoot. You could be Private Lynndie England, who got 36 months in the Naval Brig in San Diego for her part in the Abu Ghraib scandal. Or you could be Major General Geoffrey Miller, Donald Rumsfeld's interrogation czar at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, who was allowed to retire as a two-star.

Or you could be Donald Rumsfeld, the man perhaps most singularly responsible for every crime and disaster committed in our Middle East misadventure, and retire as Secretary of Defense to a life of luxury that very few of us dare to dream of.

Funny how that works, isn't it? Lynndie England will be lucky to get back her civilian job at a fast food joint. Miller and Rumsfeld will never have to eat at one.

The Good, the Bad and the Culpable

Like I said, I can't condone or condemn the Marines in this story because I don't really know what happened. But I find myself sympathizing with them because it's a travesty that they were in Afghanistan in the first place. The fourth anniversary of the Mesopotamia Mistake took most of the public's eye off the fact that we've been flopping around in Afghanistan since October of 2001. Five and a half years later, Afghanistan is a narco-state, the Taliban are launching a spring offensive, the Karzai government is a joke and, oh yeah, the tallest Arab ever wanted dead or alive by an American president is still on the loose. None of that is the fault of the Marines under investigation for using "indiscriminate force" at Nangarhar Province.

None of those Marines concocted the elaborate hoax that led to our invasion of Iraq, none of them lied to us year after year about how well things were going there, and none of them tried to blame the "hostile media" or "Defeato-crats" for their own culpability in running two of the most mismanaged wars in U.S. history. Nor will they live comfortably the rest of their lives on the cushion of their war profits. Whatever the results of their investigation or trials, none of those Marines will land 7 figure book deals, or cushy fellowships with neoconservative think tanks, or high dollar jobs as pundits in Rupert Murdoch's right wing media empire, and they're not likely to pick up executive positions with big profile defense contractors.

And come January 2009, none of them will retire to their ranches in Texas and erect libraries dedicated to the redemption of their legacies.


  1. Bacon's Rebellion2:02 AM


    So little is know in the way of facts that it is difficult to make much in the way of an intelligent comment upon the actions which have been attributed to some Marines of the newly formed Special Operations Company. This is the first time that I can recollect that an entire Marine unit (albeit a very small unit) has effectively been declared persona non grata and ordered out of a theater of operations.

    When it became known that Marine units were being trained for Special Operations I was less than enthusiastic about the concept. The history of creating special super-elite units within the Marine Corps has not ever enjoyed any long term acceptance. This was first tried in WWII with the "Para-Marines" and Edson's and Carlson's Raider Battalions. While the two raider battalions enjoyed some degree of success they were ultimately disbanded and their personnel were dispersed into conventional Marine units. I have heard that Headquarters Marine Corps was resistant to the idea of creating these Special Operations units and complied only with the greatest reluctance.

    In a lawless violent convoluted tribal place like Afghanistan, who knows who shot whom or under what circumstances people were killed or wounded. When you compound this by adding the practice of paying death indemnities to a population that exists at a bare subsistence level you can hardly expect much in the way of truthful statements. They will largely say what they need to say to obtain whatever damages they can collect. In addition the local inhabitants will also be pressured by the Taliban, warlords or whatever insurgents exist in that area to make statements designed to make the U.S. forces appear in as negative a light as possible.

    In today's military, where every combat action seems to be open to close scrutiny and endless second guessing by echelons of legal officers eager to make a name for themselves and careerist general officers seeking to insulate themselves from any and all liability, it is very likely that we will see a series of courts martial being convened as a result of the allegations against this Marine unit. Even without that coming to pass the careers of all or most of the Marine officers in this unit are likely over. Likewise the future of the career NCOs in the unit will also suffer as well. Never fear though the legal officers and the generals will do just fine. Tennis at the "O" Club anyone?

    At the bottom of all this is the utter futility of trying to bring some sort of peace and order to a part of the world that has never enjoyed that and probably never will. The opportunity that we did have to destroy the Taliban has likely come and gone. At this point we seem to be wasting lives and treasure for a very dubious outcome. This entire business of fighting a war on terrorism really needs to be carefully reexamined in terms of what our goals and objectives are and how we are going to accomplish them. Thus far we seem to be operating on an ad hoc basis and hoping for the best, which if history is any judge is not likely to happen.

  2. Amen to all that, BR.



  3. While BR is right in certain aspects, some of the facts of this event do not agree with his general interpretation throughout.

    What made this event so newsworthy was the fact that there were photo and video journalists on the scene and a record was taken immediately after the fact. A member of the company forced the cameramen to erase all images taken at the scene.

    The event apparently happened in the vicinity of Barakaw, Nangahar Province, which is outside the capital and somewhere between there and Jalabad, about 75 kilometers away. It’s barren countryside, and I guess the odds are pretty high the AP cameramen might have either been with the convoy, or following along behind. As BR notes, Afghanistan is a “lawless violent convoluted tribal place” and I am dubious the AP people were just out for a Sunday drive to get some air.

    Since the civilian bodies were reportedly strewn around over six miles of road according to the first reports the likelihood of a running gun battle seems less likely than a regional driveby.

    As a side observation, the Marines do tend to dislike elite units, apparently considering the entire Corps to be an elite unit. (Fancy that.) However, every USMC regiment has an integral Recon company whose members are airborne- and scuba-qualified, I believe. I don’t think that’s the same type of unit as those titled “Force Recon,” which have been attached to US Special Operations Command.

    I think the entire company has been sent back to Kuwait.

  4. Yes, Lurch, that's my understanding too.

  5. Bacon's Rebellion6:20 PM


    You have made the point that I was attempting to make about the general feeling within the Marine Corps towards the creation of super-elite units. I think we are in accord on that issue.

    I was unaware that the current Marine infantry regiments had added (as a part of their TO) a recon company. My recollection (from the early 1960s) is that all we had in the way of reconnaissance units was a Recon Bn, which was a component of Force Troops. The present TO makes a lot more sense.

    I suppose next you will tell me that the BAR and machine gun carts are passé as well.

  6. BR, didn't you see Clint Eastwood in "Heartbreak Ridge"? Why that platoon of life-takers and heart-breakers captured the whole damned island themselves!

    And it's worse than you think, BR. The P-38 thumb-cutter has gone the way of the BAR and gun carts.

  7. Bacon's Rebellion11:28 AM


    I'm deeply saddened to learn that the very modern K38 has been made obsolete and am at a loss to know what the men will be using to open their tinned rations in the future. I have taken pen in hand (having carefully sharpened a new nib) and written Commandant Henderson in an effort to have it reinstated.

    Now I'm off to visit the Sea School at the Portsmouth Barracks to watch the Marines form squares and skirmish lines and snap-in with their new Krag-Jørgensen rifles.

  8. Dont mess with the Krag Jørgensen, Norways greatest product ;-) Still a good weapon.

    Other than that, well written as always. Where is Donny Rumsfeld these days, by the way?

  9. Well, BR, this will come as a shock to you, so please sit down, and have a hassock nearby to elevate your feet. They have these newfangled things called MREs. (Meals, Ready to Excrete.)

    This page tells something about them.

    Note that the most disturbing thing about them is that they require water. Yes, how strange. I always thought that canteen thing was for wine.

  10. It's worse than that.

    The Pathans, who live in the areas of Afghanistan that sustained the Taliban, have a culture very different from American culture; for them to sustain an unavenged slight is the worst thing that can befall a man, and renders him a pariah. Every wrongful death results in yet more blood feuds, which linger for decades if not settled.

    I spent some years living in a country that had many Pathans and other third world nationals working as construction workers, cab drivers and the like; for them, the country, with its oil wealth, more or less had streets paved with gold. It wasn't completely unknown for the cops to at times arrest and convict the wrong third world national in cases where they needed a quick conviction for the sake of convenience. The other third world nationals took this risk in stride as one of the risks they took in working in a country with a developing legal system, and were happy to keep silent and keep their jobs.

    Not so the Pathans, if they felt wronged, they were known to not rest until something had been done, whatever the cost to them; I was told by non-Pathan Pakistanis in awe-filled voices, that it generally known that the cops feared the Pathans, and that there had been more than one street fight between them and the cops, which resulted in the Pathans losing their jobs and being deported. The Pathans weren't irrational, in that their willingness to stand up for their rights made the cops think very, very, seriously about casually ruining a Pathan's livelihood; it's an entirely different culture. The closest equivalent the United States had to offer were the native Texans of the pre-transplant days.

    When Bush - Cheney told the American people that they were going to Afghanistan to, among other things, force women's lib and other American ideas on the "benighted" Pathans, I suspected that the odds of them succeeding were lower than if Bush-Cheney had required all American high schools to teach their football players ballet.

    History is full of miscalculations and failed gambits, but this was worse; it was arrant folly the heights of which generally result from hallucinogens.

  11. Bacon's Rebellion12:21 PM

    The Pathans have long had a reputation as a rather troublesome set of people. Which in that area of the world is certainly not a unique characteristic. Blood feuds, vengeance and a remarkably fine set of 12th century values honed to a fine edge. As a British officer, who had spent most of his career serving with the Ghurka's, once told me, "the Pathans are not only rather unpleasant but also have a particular fondness for both sheep and small boys!" His emphasis was on the word particular.

    The idea that we are somehow going to transform the Pathans or any of the other cultural groups that reside in Afghanistan or the adjacent areas into some sort of modern democratic state is entirely laughable. In the final analysis I doubt that we will be able to do more than introduce forms of weaponry and other related technology that will allow them to proceed as they have always done but with somewhat greater efficiency.

  12. Bacon's Rebellion1:56 PM

    That should have been spelled "Gurkhas" rather than "Ghurka's". My apologies for sloppy editing.

  13. Anonymous3:15 PM

    Bear in mind that when the British invaded Afghanistan, the Pathans killed all but one of them, who they let walk back to Pakistan to tell what had happened. Your officer friend may have had his biases. Sometimes "troublesome" and "independently minded" are synonyms.

  14. Bacon's Rebellion4:16 PM

    Or in the case of the Pathans both terms may be applicable --- and they can't all be bad as they do love animals or at least sheep. Yep, independent minded sheep shaggers.

    However, all kidding aside I do take your point about the 19th century British foreign policy of trying to extend the Raj just a bit further by wandering off into Afghanistan. The British officer I was referring to (elderly and retired when I spoke with him years ago) had quite a bit of experience on the North West Frontier area being shot at by various tribes including the Pathans.

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