IN THE NEWS According to today's Washington Post, half of US casualties in Iraq have been caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The horrible irony, of course, is that the United States itself has been intransigent about retaining its own arsenal of land mines. No, signing an international treaty would not stop Iraqi insurgents from continuing to use IEDs. It does, however, beg an important question: What is the US still doing with all those mines?
As long as the Soviet Union existed, there was a cogent argument for the American mine arsenal. Outnumbered by Warsaw Pact troops, NATO forces, including US troops, could only win a superpower war in Europe if they could fight a successful delaying action. Time was as much the enemy of the USSR as the United States in this scenario, since Warsaw Pact supplies would be consumed within a few weeks. In an era of mechanized warfare, mines were an important tool in NATO's arsenal.
Not all the mines in the US arsenal are designed to kill soldiers. Many are specifically designed to disable or destroy vehucles. However, what makes them all a bit worrisome is how their deployed. In any conventional war today, most mines are not placed individually by combat engineers, but dropped over a swath of territory. Some are fired out of artillery pieces; others are airdropped. These techniques ensure that US commanders can put mines where they're needed, which in a "strategically fluid" situation, could be anywhere. If Soviet forces broke through NATO defenses, mines would have needed to be deployed immediately to roads or fields in the path of the Soviet advance.
However, those days are over. There is no situation comparable to the superpower apocalypse in the northern German plain that worried defense planners for decades. While there are potential situations where mines may be useful--for example, in a war with the People's Republic of China--these aren't the wars we're fighting today.
As you might tell, I think there's a case to be made for the American mine arsenal. I also think that we don't need to have as many mines as we do, and we need a doctrine that fits the wars we're actually fight. However, the Bush Administration hasn't exactly been taking the issue seriously. Therefore, the issue has remained in stasis for the last few years.
Maybe, now, the people inside and outside the military who feel the United States should put further restrictions on its mine doctrine may get a bit more of a hearing. In Iraq, we're seeing just how useless our mines are. We also see exactly why the world has grown increasingly disgusted with anti-personnel mines as an instrument of warfare.
IN THE NEWS Tom Petty sure hit the nail on the head when he sang, "The wai-ai-ting is the hardest part." While we're waiting for tomorrow's announcements, this article encapsulates why, if indictments are announced tomorrow, the story is much larger than the prosecution of a few high-level officials.
I've kept mum about the Plame case largely because I've seen how counterproductive the speculation and scrutiny can be. For example, Josh Marshall, an otherwise very bright blogger, kept tying himself in knots over possible revelations that might lead to criminal charges. This story, which until now amounted to a series of teases about what might happen, threatened to be a distraction from serious discussion of what was happening now in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Italy, the West Bank, you name it.
As the Salon piece linked above says, Fitzgerald's prosecution may set the record straight on how the Iraq invasion happened. For the sake of those alive today, as well as future generations, that alone would be an important outcome. We're already seeing how the adage that "history is written by the winners" can often be wrong. Case in point: this New York Times story ahout how the CIA really wasn't just a bunch of dunderheads, leading an innocent president into war. I'm sure that won't be the only canard that faces serious challenge in the next few months. And I'm sure that this story, which could have been written by Ambrose Bierce instead of Gary Hart, is not the only one that should have been reported, but wasn't.
IN THE NEWS Arms Control Wonk has this interesting posting about an Iranian cargo plane's abortive trip to North Korea. If true, it's the sort of hanky-panky that's harder for us to enforce, as long as we're bogged down in Iraq.
IN THE NEWS We've turned some sort of corner when Republican Senators reject Vice President Cheney's proposal that the CIA should be exempted from torture restrictions. It's surely a sign of Cheney's isolation from practical and political realities that he would even propose such a thing.
IN THE NEWS I suspect that what people like most about Good Night And Good Luck may not be the attempt to draw parallels between McCarthyism and today's political climate. Instead, George Clooney's movie reminds us what a courageous step Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly, and the rest of the See It Now news team took by reporting critically on McCarthy and McCarthyism.
While we can argue which period of American history was worse, then or now, I don't think there's much question which period saw more individual heroism on the part of the nation's opinion makers. While there hasn't been a contemporary equivalent of the House Un-American Activities Committee, there almost didn't need to be. Many people, in a position to make a case against the invasion of Iraq, chose silence or a mealy-mouthed acquiescence. Now, they're claiming they've just discovered what a big mistake the war was, which leads many to ask, "Where the heck were you?"
Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft is getting the praise he deserves. He did argue against the invasion of Iraq. Many news outlets chose not to make much of his dissent, and some Americans who heard it discounted it out of hand. I recommend that you go back and read Scowcroft's 2002 op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal. While Scowcroft made the same mistake of many supporters of the war in believing the Ba'athist regime retained secret caches of biological and chemical weapons, and sheltered an active nuclear weapons program, that makes his stance just that much more impressive. Even with WMDs, Scowcroft argued, it was better to have let the UN inspections play out, while developing the sinews and muscles of a multilateral anti-Hussein alliance in the background. It was, simultaneously, a more courageous and confident position than the heedless assault into terra incognita, with far too few allies at our side.
Of course, he wasn't the only person in the national security Old Guard who voiced concerns about the invasion and the occupation. However, it's worth remembering who, other than Scowcroft, Zinni, and a few others, should have said something, and didn't. Whether they were deluded into thinking the Bush Administration knew something everyone else didn't, or they were eager to topple Hussein, or they were just worried for their careers, isn't important. Their silence or support has cost countless lives in a war that hasn't advanced US national security interests, and has resulted in the deaths of thousands who might, today, be involved in a much different reconstruction of Iraq, or might just be at home safe with their families.
I don't know how many members of the Silent Legion will be called up for public service again. I'm realistic enough to know that even a new President or Congress that's the polar opposite of what we have today would still need to tap the skills, experience, and contacts of many of these people. I do think, however, that some public contrition is in order. In the spirit of the Catholic Church's notion of contrition, mumbled apologies are not enough. The contrition must be specific and personal, and if possible, it must inspire others to follow a better example. Not only has the Silent Legion been party to a great wrong, the Iraq War, it has in the process dishonored the dead of 9/11, in whose name the wrong was committed.
In a nation without kings, what might be the sin of a king is the sin of the public official. As Shakespeare said through one of his characters in Henry V:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath
a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and
arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join
together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at
such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a
surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind
them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their
children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die
well that die in a battle; for how can they
charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their
argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it
will be a black matter for the king that led them to
it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of
IN THE NEWS During General William Westmoreland's term as commander of US ground forces in South Vietnam, he became largely responsible for one of the most militarily and politically dubious measures of progress, the body count. Westmoreland believed the US and South Vietnam would win through attrition, piling up the corpses of Viet Cong guerrillas or NVA regulars to the point where the enemy lost the will or capability to fight. Not only was the strategy flawed, but the measure itself led to unintended and destructive consequences. Under pressure to show progress towards breaking the enemy, US troops often exaggerated the numbers of confirmed enemy soldiers or "VCI" (short for Viet Cong infrastructure, the guerrilla's political operatives). Sometimes, the casualty estimates were no better than how many enemies you might have killed when you sprayed a treeline with automatic weapons fire. At other times, anyone killed by US or ARVN firepower--including innocent bystanders--was listed as an enemy casualty.
In other words, the body count gave American officers strong incentives to lie. Not surprisingly, practically no one in uniform complained when Westmoreland's replacement, General Creighton Abrams, ended the practice. Abrams and others who felt that the US was pursuing the wrong strategy also thought the body count distorted people's perceptions of how well the war was going. Securing the villages was the key to winning the counterinsurgency war, not killing as many purported enemy troops or VCI operatives as possible. You could have the most accurate body count imaginable, and still have no idea whether you were winning or losing.
The current generation of American officers is keenly aware of this problem. It's therefore not surprising that they've been unwilling to talk much about casualty statistics in Iraq. While the occupants of the White House are always keen to grab at any statistics they can to demonstrate progress in Iraq, the body count has been notably absent from the list of other quantitative measures--number of schools re-opened, number of hours that electrical plants have been operating per day, etc.--which have themselves been the target of scrutiny and skepticism.
However, the US military has been talking a bit more about estimated enemy casualties than it did before. While the change may not have been officially sanctioned from on high, American officers aren't exactly making these estimates just because. There is pressure to show progress, and it's hard to explain why, exactly, some of the best-trained, most technologically capable soldiers in the world can't tell you how many people they've killed today.
At the same time, I don't want to be part of the pressure to resurrect the body count as a definitive metric. Those concerned about the number of killed, enemies and civilians, have good practical and moral reasons for wanting to know. At the same time, we have to be circumspect about our ability to know. Is that person on a nearby rooftop using his cellphone to direct rockets or suicide bombers against US targets? Or is he just trying to warn his family to stay away from their neighborhood while US forces are conducting a sweep through the area? American commanders should have as good an idea as possible before killing that person. However, on all too many occasions, they may never know with the certainty that lets them sleep easily at night. That, of course, is one of the great tragedies of the Iraq War, and a good reason not to craft a strategy based on the body count.
I don't envy anyone in Abbas' shoes at this critical moment in the intertwined history of the Palestinians and Israelis. If the US government had opposed Hamas' participation, and put any bite into this decision, it would have made Abbas' already difficult situation practically impossible to manage. So, instead, we get murmurings about opposing militant groups, and that's about it.
IN THE NEWS Over US objections, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization has approved a treaty that helps protect national TV, movies, music, and other cultural products from foreign (i.e., American) competition. In the course of world affairs, it's not the worst thing that could have or has happened. This may or may not have passed, even if there hadn't been a Bush victory in the 2000 election, an invasion of Iraq, etc. etc. Still, current events probably lubricated the negotations over this treaty, which will have an effect on US entertainment companies. Often, ticket receipts for American movies, syndication fees for US television shows, and sales of (often translated) books by American authors bring in more money abroad than they do in the United States. If there's any extended wrangling over whatever this treaty means in practice, US companies stand to lose a considerable amount of money.
By coincidence, I'm just leaving Orlando today after a week-long business trip. Many people who attended the conferences here rolled their eyes at the Disney culture here, which alternately seems kitschy, childish, unimaginative, and predatory. (On that last point, I had a slight brush with how the resorts treat their employees: miserably.) I also saw a lot of European, Asian, and Latin American tourists here. Apparently, not everyone outside the United States thinks American popular culture isn't worth their hard-earned euros, yen, or pesos.