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Judge, Jury, and Executioner

June 6, 2012 Leave a comment

President Obama, that is.

I seem unable to let go of Jo Becker and Scott Shane’s piece in the NYT last week on Obama’s drone policies and now famous kill list. I’ve already written about it twice, here and here. I return to it today to draw your attention to Francine Prose’s insightful post at The New York Review’s blog. (Yes, Francine Prose, famous novelist.)

Prose begins by explaining what draws her to the subject:

After reading the article that appeared under the headline “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” in the May 29 New York Times, I couldn’t talk about much else. I found myself wanting to analyze it, as one might dissect a literary text, to better understand how it produced its effect on the reader: in my case, shock and awe, tempered by consolatory flickers of disbelief. Like literature, the story resists summarization, partly because the Times reporters, Jo Becker and Scott Shane, employ detail, word choice, diction, and tone to direct and influence the reader’s response without, on the surface, appearing to do so—and to make a familiar narrative seem new.

She then proceeds with the analysis, which I urge you to read. I won’t say more about it. I will only quote the ending, which so aptly captures how President Obama has followed in Bush’s footsteps by trampling on the US as a nation governed by the rule of law. Before quoting Prose, let me mention how astonishing it is that our secretary of state routinely lectures other nations on their need to live under the rule of law.

Let’s see. I’ve just done a google search on “Hillary Clinton rule of law”. Here are the first four hits:

  • A Reuters item from last December with the headline "Clinton: Syrians must oust Assad, move toward rule of law."
  • An Al Jazeerah item from a month ago describing Clinton as having “appealed to Bangladeshis to respect the rule of law.”
  • A post at the Department of State’s official blog on “Strengthening the Rule of Law and Combating Crime.”
  • Another post at the Department of State’s blog telling Liberians that “justice and rule of law is needed to fully move on from its former state of war.”
  • Thank God for our State Department. Maybe Hillary can have a chat with Barack. Speaking of whom, here is Prose’s conclusion (emphasis added by me):

    By the article’s final section, its authors have amassed enough evidence to support a condemnation of the policies they have described. “(Obama’s) focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president. Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents.”

    Aside from the reference to the deaths of innocents, this is primarily a political rather than a moral critique. For that, we need to examine the article’s final line, which continues to resonate after we have set aside our papers. Presumably, pages of transcripts must have been sifted through in order to find (and end with) the following quote from Michael Leiter, former Director of the National Counterterrorism Center.

    “You can pass a lot of laws,” Mr. Leiter said, “These laws are not going to get Bin Laden dead.”

    Get Bin Laden dead? With its execrable grammar, its calculated thuggishness, and, for all that we have been reading about the assumption of personal responsibility, its euphemistic avoidance of what is really at issue (to get dead is not the same as to kill, and it’s never laws but people who get other people dead), the quote suggests a new dispensation in which our government, at the highest level, has given Tony Soprano license to ignore the rule of law and murder actual human beings, some of them harmless civilians. Shouldn’t we feel more frightened than reassured by the knowledge that the leader of our country holds himself accountable for every one of these deaths?

    Categories: Law, Politics, War

    Suspected Militants

    June 3, 2012 Leave a comment

    I know one shouldn’t be surprised that some things never change. Things like, on matters of war, governments lie. It doesn’t matter who’s in charge. It doesn’t matter if the guy lying is the one who promised to end those lying ways. It’s just what governments do. I don’t know why. I just know. A lesson President Obama has done so much to help me learn. I mean, Nixon was a scoundrel. Bush a liar. Obama? Well, nice guy and all, but on matters of war, I’m not seeing much difference.

    Remember General Westmoreland’s light at the end of the tunnel? Well, maybe you don’t. But I do. 1967. The war in Vietnam would be over soon. I was naive enough to believe it. And naive enough a few years later to think our officials wouldn’t be feeding us the same crap again. But they do. Iraq. Afghanistan. Always light. Light at the end of the tunnel.

    Let’s talk about drones. The big news this past week was Tuesday’s NYT article by Jo Becker and Scott Shane about Obama’s kill list and drone policies. I wrote about it that day, quoting the following passage:

    Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

    Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

    This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

    But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

    “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

    I had intended in that post to draw a link between the February killing of Trayvon Martin and the notion that if you “look” suspicious, that’s sufficient basis for being shot. It turns out the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Will Bunch made this very point, as well as a point about David Axelrod’s presence in the room with Obama when kill decisions are made:

    This may be the ultimate example of something we’ve seen a lot in the last three and a half years, which we’ll call, “If President Bush did this, liberals would be outraged.” For what little it’s worth, I’m fairly outraged. I do certainly approve of the raid and killing of Osama bin Laden and believe there was a time when al-Qaeda was stronger and more of a threat that these kind of attacks could be justified with solid intelligence.

    But today the harm that’s caused by raining death from machines in the sky down onto far too many civilians — including someone’s son, brother, or father who wasn’t “up to no good” at all — vastly outweighs any good. Righteous anger over the killing of civilians creates new terrorists faster than the killing of any old ones. As for the morally indefensible position that any male killed in such an attack is “probably up to no good,” isn’t the Obama administration saying the EXACT same thing that George Zimmerman said about Trayvon Martin?

    Ponder that for a moment.

    One more revolting thing is the news that a political adviser, David Axelrod, sat in on some of these meetings at which it was decided who would live and die.

    If Karl Rove had done that (which he did, by the way). liberals would have been outraged.

    Drone attacks continue:

    The second U.S. drone attack in as many days killed 10 people in northwest Pakistan on Sunday, intelligence officials said, an incident likely to raise tensions in the standoff between Washington and Islamabad over NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.

    The remotely-piloted aircraft fired four missiles at a suspected Islamist militant hideout in the Birmal area of the South Waziristan tribal region near the Afghanistan border, officials said.

    A drone strike in the same area killed two suspected militants on Saturday.

    [snip]

    The CIA drone campaign fuels anti-U.S. sentiment in Pakistan and is counterproductive because of collateral damage, Pakistani officials say. But U.S. officials say such strikes are highly effective against militants.

    What are we to think when told that a drone strike killed two suspected militants, or that such strikes are highly effective against militants? Remember, US policy is to count “all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.” By definition, our drone strikes kill suspected militants and are effective.

    And, what are we to think when newspapers and news agencies repeat such statements without a comment on government counting policy? It’s bad enough that the government BS’s us. It’s worse that our media follow suit.

    Which brings me to where I started, recalling Vietnam 45 years ago, the phony body counts, the lies. Have we learned nothing?

    Categories: Law, Politics, War

    Change We Can Believe In, XXXII

    May 29, 2012 Leave a comment

    Change We Can Believe In: If We Killed ’em, They Were up to No Good

    Yup, it’s really that simple. You trust our president, don’t you? He’s smart. And a constitutional law scholar. I sleep better, knowing that he’s watching out for us, deciding who should live and who should die.

    Jo Becker and Scott Shane reported in a lengthy front-page piece in today’s NYT about how

    Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. … [He] approves every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation.

    The article is based on conversations with a long list of past and present administration officials. It paints a largely positive picture of Obama and his drones, but every so often words of caution sneak out. For example (emphasis mine):

    Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

    Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

    This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

    But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

    “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

    Harper’s Scott Horton, commenting today on this part of the article, observes (emphasis mine again) that

    this is a very important disclosure. On one hand, it clarifies the basis for the CIA’s no-collateral-damage claim. On the other, it puts the drone program on very tenuous grounds under the laws of war. The U.S. military in Iraq, for instance, has previously disciplined officers who issued rules of engagement authorizing the targeting of all military-age males. A person cannot be presumed to be a terrorist simply because he is male, of military age, and happens to be in the same village as some terrorists—he must be engaged in conduct that makes him a combatant. Applied to targeting, this presumption raises serious war-crime issues. As the Times reports, the administration is currently limiting its use to the counting of persons unintentionally killed when a legitimate target has been struck, which theoretically leads only to false information about the number of innocent civilians killed. But the distinction isn’t actually quite so clear-cut: in deciding on a strike, an estimate of collateral damage has to be included. And if all able males are deemed legitimate targets, that process is being seriously distorted.

    Near the end of the NYT article, Becker and Shane pull back from the details to provide a glimpse of the broader implications of our drone wars.

    [Obama’s] focus on strikes has made it impossible to forge, for now, the new relationship with the Muslim world that he had envisioned. Both Pakistan and Yemen are arguably less stable and more hostile to the United States than when Mr. Obama became president.

    Justly or not, drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents. With China and Russia watching, the United States has set an international precedent for sending drones over borders to kill enemies.

    Imagine — Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize!

    Categories: Law, Politics, War

    War on Terror at Home

    May 7, 2012 Leave a comment

    [Tom Tomorrow, May 7, 2012 at Daily Kos]

    Yesterday, at CNN’s blog, prominent mainstream journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria did what mainstream journalists so rarely do: speak truth about our ever growing national security state:

    While we will leave the battlefields of the greater Middle East, we are firmly committed to the war on terror at home. What do I mean by that? Well, look at the expansion of federal bureaucracies to tackle this war.

    Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for the intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet – the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. The largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs is now the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.

    The rise of this national security state has entailed a vast expansion in the government’s powers that now touch every aspect of American life, even when seemingly unrelated to terrorism. Some 30,000 people, for example, are now employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and other communications within the United States.

    In the past, the U.S. government has built up for wars, assumed emergency authority and sometimes abused that power, yet always demobilized after the war. But this is, of course, a war without end.
    So we continue to stand in absurd airport lines. We continue to turn down the visa applications of hundreds of thousands of tourists, businessmen, artists and performers who simply want to visit America and spend money here, and become ambassadors of good will for this country. We continue to treat even those visitors who arrive with visas as hostile aliens – checking, searching and deporting people at will. We continue to place new procedures and rules to monitor everything that comes in and out of the country, making doing business in America less attractive and more burdensome than in most Western countries.

    We don’t look like people who have won a war. We look like scared, fearful, losers.

    I become increasingly convinced that President Obama’s greatest long-term impact on our country is his legitimation of policies on war, surveillance, and privacy that once seemed the aberrant acts of a rogue administration. Rather than winding them down as he disengaged from Iraq and Afghanistan, he has woven them into the fabric of our government.

    At least he exercises his powers wisely and with discretion.

    Categories: Law, Politics, War

    Eisenhower’s Wisdom

    April 24, 2012 Leave a comment

    I received my new issue of The New York Review of Books yesterday. The previous issue had come while we were away. In getting caught up on other fronts (including writing a series of posts on our time in North Carolina), I had failed to get far in that old issue. Fortunately, last night Joel mentioned that it contained an interesting article about Eisenhower, and this morning I read it first thing. I recommend it highly. (Alas, it’s behind the NYR paywall.) The article is a review by Thomas Powers of two recent books: Eisenhower: The White House Years, by Jim Newton, and Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith.

    Whenever I think of Eisenhower, I recall the single most boring book I ever read, his memoirs. Looking him up in Amazon, I see that it must have been The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956, from 1965, although I don’t recall that it only covered Eisenhower’s first term. What I remember is a frightfully thick paperback. And I remember learning about several events from my infancy and toddlerhood that I hadn’t read treatments of before, such as the end of the Korean War, the McCarthy hearings, and the Suez crisis. This wasn’t the place to learn the basics, which I would only make sense of years later. I don’t entirely remember what made the book so tedious. For that, I would need to have a new look.

    In any case, back to the biographies and Powers’ review. Early on, Powers describes how Eisenhower acquired

    a learned understanding, firmer than that of perhaps any other president, of the nature of the power wielded by nations—that thing, described by Thucydides, which explains why “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Eisenhower himself would never have described what he knew in language so plain, but it is what marks the mind of the man who emerges from two new biographies.

    … The education of Dwight David Eisenhower began with books—the tales of Hannibal and Caesar he loved as a child, the deeper study under [General] Fox Conner—but more important was his experience of war, which came late.

    Powers continues with an overview of Eisenhower’s World War II experience and its lessons, a survey of Eisenhower’s handling of assorted international crises, and a concluding passage that captures Eisenhower’s greatness:

    Eisenhower’s special gift was not for practice of the traditional military arts but for sensing the inertia of war—why it is so difficult to back away from threats of force, once issued, and almost impossible after shooting starts.

    Respect for the danger of this inertia, deep enough to make a difference, seems to come only from direct personal experience. Even President Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who had lived long enough to know better, thought armies could apply useful pressure. “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about,” she said once, “if we can’t use it?”

    Eisenhower was surrounded by people who believed roughly the same thing, but he had learned respect for modern war as an all-or-nothing game. During his eight years in the White House he never seemed to get the big things wrong, but in the decades that have followed horrible examples abound. For all their differences, American presidents since Eisenhower seem to share an abiding temptation—they can’t let peace alone. They wish to look bold; defiance makes them pugnacious; and the military leaders promise quick victories with little pain.

    We may imagine Eisenhower’s response, if he had been sitting in the room when Kennedy’s advisers told him they planned to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government by invading Cuba with a thousand men, or when they told him later to send a few thousand American soldiers to stave off defeat in Vietnam—but not too many, and as “advisers” only. Would Eisenhower have told Lyndon Johnson, oh yes, certainly, send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to do what Kennedy’s few could not? Would he have encouraged Johnson to help the Air Force pick bombing targets in North Vietnam? Would he have advised George W. Bush that seizure of Kabul and dispersion of the Taliban into the mountains were victory enough in Afghanistan? Would he have backed the urging of Cheney and Rumsfeld to send an army to invade Iraq, but not too big an army? What would Eisenhower say now about Iran?

    The successors of Robert Taft share the dead senator’s views on cutting federal spending and celebrating the Christian religion, as well as his sullen dislike of such measures as Social Security, but (save Ron Paul) they are full of appetite for threatening Iran with America’s superb military. Mitt Romney was briefly in his youth a member of the Boy Scouts, but his time in uniform ended there. He avoided the Vietnam War through student deferments and thirty months as a Mormon missionary in France. But Romney supports tough action to back up tough talk on Iran, and once suggested that continued Iranian defiance on nuclear matters would merit a sharp rap “in the nature of blockade or a bombardment or surgical strikes of one kind or another.”

    Hearing this, Eisenhower might have asked himself: Where do you begin?

    I am, of course, no fan of Mitt Romney. Eisenhower surely would have much to teach him. But I have no illusion that Obama (or Hillary Clinton) is much better. Indeed, Romney’s dishonest attacks on Obama’s foreign policy notwithstanding, the essentials of their war strategies are likely to differ little, whichever is elected. We search in vain for a new Eisenhower, a voice of wisdom and maturity who can change our direction.

    Categories: History, Politics, War

    Change We Can Believe In, XXXI

    April 22, 2012 1 comment

    Change We Can Believe In: Bug Splat

    I’ve written what may seem to be more than my share of posts on US drone warfare, including one a week ago. Then again, can there be too many? Here we are, waging undeclared war around the world, killing people without warrant based on the argument that they are on the battlefield (this being an easy argument to make when you claim that the whole world is a battlefield). We can thank the Bush administration for this claim, but Obama and his enablers in the Justice Department have eagerly stuck by it. Obama won’t release full details on drone warfare or its legal justification on the grounds that that would jeopardize our security. So we continue down the path of lawlessness, making it the norm and ensuring that our security is indeed jeopardized. Some change!

    But I’m no expert. For more, Michael Hastings’ article The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America Goes to War in Secret in the current Rolling Stone is essential reading. Here’s a passage from early in the article:

    During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the military conducted only a handful of drone missions. Today, the Pentagon deploys a fleet of 19,000 drones, relying on them for classified missions that once belonged exclusively to Special Forces units or covert operatives on the ground. American drones have been sent to spy on or kill targets in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia and Libya. Drones routinely patrol the Mexican border, and they provided aerial surveillance over Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In his first three years, Obama has unleashed 268 covert drone strikes, five times the total George W. Bush ordered during his eight years in office. All told, drones have been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four U.S. citizens. In the process, according to human rights groups, they have also claimed the lives of more than 800 civilians. Obama’s drone program, in fact, amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history; never have so few killed so many by remote control.

    And another:

    For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is “bug splat,” since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.) As drone pilot Lt. Col. Matt Martin recounts in his book Predator, operating a drone is “almost like playing the computer game Civilization” – something straight out of “a sci-fi novel.” After one mission, in which he navigated a drone to target a technical college being occupied by insurgents in Iraq, Martin felt “electrified” and “adrenalized,” exulting that “we had shot the technical college full of holes, destroying large portions of it and killing only God knew how many people.”

    Only later did the reality of what he had done sink in. “I had yet to realize the horror,” Martin recalls.

    This is the warfare that Obama has embraced.

    Categories: Law, Politics, Video Games, War

    Drone Assassinations

    March 17, 2012 Leave a comment

    Above is Ruben Bolling’s latest. I may be overdoing cartoons lately, but this one is too good to pass up. Our best cartoonists find fewer and fewer paid outlets for their work, even as they provide the most trenchant commentary on the political scene. As President Obama and Attorney General assure us that drone assassinations targeted killings are legal and that the authority to assassinate perform targeted killing is used wisely, it’s best to keep in mind that with the increase in domestic drones, the next targets may be us.

    Categories: Government, War

    Change We Can Believe In, XXVIII

    February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

    Change We Can Believe In: Illegal Drone Killings

    The Bureau of Investigative Journalism , based at City University in London, released a report yesterday on our country’s covert drone war in Pakistan. The investigation, done for the Sunday Times, reveals that

    since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children. A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners.

    As noted earlier in the report, “Obama claimed last week [drones strikes] are used strictly to target terrorists, rejecting what he called ‘this perception we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly’.” The meaning of the word “terrorist” stretches further with each passing year, but calling rescuers and mourners “terrorists” is a new low.

    Glenn Greenwald followed up the report with some useful commentary, observing that

    the Bureau is extremely scrupulous, perhaps to a fault, in the claims it makes about civilian drone fatalities. Its findings here about deliberate targeting of rescuers and funeral attendees are supported by ample verified witness testimony, field research and public reports, all of which the Bureau has documented in full. As [Bureau member Chris] Woods said by email: “We have been working for months with field researchers in Waziristan to independently verify the original reports. In 12 cases we are able to confirm that rescuers and mourners were indeed attacked.”

    We can’t have an open discussion of our drone war because it is secret and Obama won’t provide details. Not that there’s evidence that Congress welcomes such a discussion. And the Republican candidates (other than Ron Paul) criticize Obama for not doing even more. American exceptionalism indeed.

    Categories: Politics, War

    Purposeful Life

    February 2, 2012 Leave a comment

    Two days ago, I wrote about the death earlier that day in Afghanistan of my friend’s son Will. The theme of the post was the senselessness of the war and of such deaths. Today I celebrate Will’s purposeful life.

    Lawrence Dabney, a war correspondent, wrote about Will two months ago in The Faster Times, describing him as

    the sort of Marine that war films are made about. Unflappable, assured, and grimly competent, he is charismatic in spite of the ridiculous mustache that he and half the Corps seem to sport (not, as I first thought, a Movember thing—these last the whole deployment). At 23, he is young for a Sergeant. Both his parents are history professors.

    Sgt. Stacey joined the Marines five years ago. He hesitates before answering why. “Saying I came in for the war makes it sound like for some reason I like it, which isn’t true,” he says, squinting a little in the desert sun. “But I came in because I felt like it was important. Now that it’s winding down, I feel like there’s other things I want to do.” When his contract expires, he plans to go back to school to study history.

    Tuesday, Dabney wrote again. I hope you don’t mind if I quote at length from the piece.

    [Will] commanded the squad I was embedded with when I ended up in my first firefight, and it was plainer than anything that he kept the men under his command alive. I’ve already written about him, his confidence and charisma and strangely rugged wisdom for a young man of twenty-three, his ridiculous mustache, but now there is more to say because Will is dead.

    Will was killed this morning by an IED blast somewhere in Now Zad district of Helmand province. He was the only casualty, though another marine was injured by a second IED. He was on a dismounted foot patrol and some halfwit insurgent managed to cram enough explosive material into the bomb that it killed him. He’ll be buried in Arlington, I hear. Today was his mother’s birthday.

    … No-one wants another Marine to die either but there are those who are special, whose loss hurts more than others, and Sgt. Stacey was as special as they come. He had a bright and concentrated flame within him that could cut through stone. It spelled death and failure for his enemies and gave life to his comrades. Quite literally gave life—there is no doubt in my mind that his cold competence, his charisma and cool under fire, his wisdom so far beyond his years that I wonder just what it is that old people are supposed to be so wise about, kept the men under his command alive.

    [snip]

    There are people like that in the world, and you know within seconds when you meet one. Their madness bends them to different winds but ours took us both to war. In it there is the potential, sometimes, most certainly in Will, for incredible things. To change the universe we live in, the course of humanity itself and the prisms through which we understand the world. But it comes at a price, and—most unfairly of all—that price is only borne by those who through dumb luck do not live to see their madness bloom.

    They die. They must pass through the fire to become who they need to be—they are drawn to it like moths—and it not a test of fortitude or courage but only of chance to determine whether they emerge from the other side alive. If they do, the world awaits. But most do not. Many die in the first moments of their descent; Will was so close to emergence that he could feel the daylight warming on his skin.

    Will was a rarity among service members. Young and wise is nothing new to the military, but his intelligence and charisma made him something special. Had it come to it I do not doubt that the Corps would have done everything in their power to convince him to stay. He is the sort of man you would want commanding your troops, analyzing a million pieces of data to save a few extra lives, beloved by every man beneath him though none truly knows him.

    [snip]

    He brought something human to the world, an attribute in remarkably short supply for all the humans there are. His soft-sandpaper, young Clint Eastwood voice doled out insight and kindness to the men he led and the people he met. Among all that, he was an ordinary and relatable human being who gave me a sharpie to ‘fix’ my smiley-face patch and whose Facebook picture is just him, standing in a crowd, holding a can of beer. His life ended in tragedy, but it was lived in grace.

    Amen.

    Categories: Life, War

    Senseless Death

    January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

    The war in Afghanistan continues. But why? President Obama campaigned four years ago in part on the basis that Bush was pursuing the wrong war — Iraq rather than Afghanistan. Obama vowed to reverse priorities, and indeed he has, withdrawing troops from Iraq while building up in Afghanistan. But to what end? Al Qaeda would appear to be defeated, and in any case, to the extent that they’re still around, they’re next door in Pakistan. US troops don’t seem to be welcome. See for instance Matthew Rosenberg’s piece in the NYT a week and a half ago, which opens:

    American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report.

    A decade into the war in Afghanistan, the report makes clear that these killings have become the most visible symptom of a far deeper ailment plaguing the war effort: the contempt each side holds for the other, never mind the Taliban. The ill will and mistrust run deep among civilians and militaries on both sides, raising questions about what future role the United States and its allies can expect to play in Afghanistan.

    According to the NYT six days ago, “The Department of Defense has identified 1,868 American service members who have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations.” And today I learned of one more Afghan war death, that of my friend’s dear son Will, a Marine, who was the same age as my son Joel. I wish I knew why.

    As far as I can tell, domestic politics is once again driving the war’s prolongation, without the counterweight of a draft. If the politics of this country were at all sane, our president would have a lot of explaining to do. Instead, he’s sitting back while the truly insane warmongers of the other party call for yet more war, chomping at the bit to accuse him of losing Iraq.

    Meanwhile, people die. My sadness is laced with anger.

    Categories: Politics, War