Archive for category Afghanistan

Obama Critics Are Misguided

The President addresses the nation on September 10, 2013

The President addresses the nation on September 10, 2013

President Obama’s patience on Syria is yielding perhaps the best policy outcome, even though the process is causing especially the far right to froth at the mouth in condemning Obama for “weakness” or “ineptitude” or a host of things.   Of course, within the GOP you have Senator Rand Paul saying that Obama wants to “ally with al qaeda” by opposing Assad, while Senator McCain wants to “help the anti-Assad rebellion.” That means that Paul says fellow Republican John McCain wants to “ally with al qaeda.”   And they criticize Obama?

A few points about the Syria case so far.  The core of the White House response has been consistent and clear:   1) the US and the international community should not tolerate the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government against civilians; 2) it is not in the US national interest to get involved in a bloody, on going war in Syria, nor is it in the US national interest to “go it alone” if the rest of the international community does not want to act in enforcement of the norms against WMD; and 3) the United States cannot act effectively if the country is not on board, meaning that Congress must approve any action taken.

The critics of Obama make the error of black and white thinking.   They think that if the US believes number 1 to be true, then the US has no choice but to act.   Not acting would be weakness, or sacrificing principle.   That’s the kind of “all or nothing” thinking that led us to the debacle in Iraq.   We may oppose the act of a foreign dictator but choose not to intervene – there have been horrific acts undertaken over the last century, rarely have we intervened.   The US has only intervened when it is in the US interest.

However in this case President Obama is dealing with a world that is much different than that of the past; instead of leading the “West” in a bipolar world, the US is major power in a multi-polar world which operates under different principles than before.   The Cold War world is past, both at home and abroad the US faces a fundamentally altered foreign policy reality.

McCain's not happy with the new GOP isolationists (Paul and McCain)

McCain’s not happy with the new GOP isolationists – Paul and McCain

The division between McCain and Paul illustrate the transformation.   Paul represents an “isolationist Republican” of the kind not seen since the early post-war years.   At that time anti-Communism morphed the party into a hawkish interventionist stance, one that has been pretty consistent through the Iraq War.   McCain represents a “Cold War Republican” whose view of the US is that of a global leader of the West, shaping world politics to fit American values and interests.   That role was possible in a bipolar world where other “western” states ad no real choice but to support the US.  They relied on the US for self-defense and for preserving the global free trade system upon which post-war growth was based.   The US could call the shots and expect others to jump.

Obama isn’t the first to realize the world has changed.   President Clinton found it extremely difficult to put his Kosovo coalition together, and President Bush had active opposition from France and Germany to his Iraq plans.   They colluded with Russia, something that obviously would have never happened in the Cold War.  The fact of the matter is the US is now a powerful player in a multi-polar world, with the East-West divide a thing of the past.  McCain’s Cold War mentality is obsolete.

Like it or not, the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened the US

Like it or not, the policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened the US

The US cannot demand support from the “rest of the West” nor expect to receive it.   The debacle in Iraq shows the limits of US military power, and assures that other states neither fear nor worry about the consequences of opposing the US.  To be sure, Assad himself fears a US military attack, but also knows that the US no longer is a dominant world power.

Russia has been shielding the Assad regime from UN action; if Obama can bring Russia on board for some kind of action, it's a win

Russia has been shielding the Assad regime from UN action; if Obama can bring Russia on board for some kind of action, it’s a win

Moreover, politics at home are fractured, and it’s hardly Obama’s fault.  Assad’s ability to play the American right wing and get them to all but embrace him is an example of a domestic political situation where the far right oppose Obama so virulently that they do not want to have a united foreign policy.   McCain isn’t part of that group – he and others like Senator Graham, who have been harsh in their criticism of Obama on other fronts, are ready to support the President now.   They just find a party more extreme and virulent than in the past.

Mix the weakened state of the US on the world stage with the fractured and dysfunctional politics at home, and the US simply is not the world power it used to be.  It’s not Obama’s fault, or Bush’s fault or any one person’s fault – it’s a result of global and domestic political dynamics that have been building for over twenty years.

Yet despite that, Obama may end up with a real success on Syria – limited international action without risking US prestige and soldiers, advancing at least somewhat the norm against chemical weapons while pressuring the Syrian government.    He’s handling the situation with finesse, patience, and a dose of realism.   He understands the constraints, and seems to comprehend that the world of 2013 is part of a new foreign policy era.   The naysaying pundits can throw out their ad hominems, but the President appears immune to their sting.

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Generals Gone Wild!

General John Allen and David Petraeus find themselves in deep trouble thanks to their indiscretions

Last Thursday the students in the Honors first year seminar headed down to Colby College in Waterville to see a modern production of the Aristophanes classic Lysistrata.    It was hilarious.

Colby College Theater Department chair Lynne Connor adapted it and injected it with modern themes, ranging from binders of women to frustrated men walking around with toy light sabers positioned like male erections.    A subtheme of the whole play was the role of women as a potential force against war, as well as the insanity of war in general.

The age old themes of women, men, sex and warfare had a turn for the bizarre with the news that first CIA Director David Petraeus and now General John Allen, a four star general commanding forces in Afghanistan, may be brought down by indiscretions involving attractive women connected with the military.   Aristophanes would smile – la plus ca change, la plus c’est la meme chose – the more things change the more they stay the same.

Given events, Colby’s production of Lysistrata was well timed

The scandal started with jarring news directly after the election that David Petraeus had resigned as CIA director due to an affair with Paula Broadwell.   Broadwell, a beautiful and athletic women in her late thirties, had observed Petraeus in order to write a book about his leadership skills.    Though they worked together from 2008 onward, the affair apparently started in 2011 after Petraeus left the military.

They thought they had it hidden.   Borrowing from al qaeda methods of communication, they shared an e-mail account and left messages as drafts in their files.   Each could access the account and read the drafts.   Clever.   At this point not much more is known about their relationship, though Broadwell’s father says there is “a lot more than meets the eye” and that new revelations are likely.

The FBI started investigating when another woman, Jill Kelley, reported receiving harassing e-mails from Broadwell in July 2012.    The FBI quickly determined that Broadwell sent the e-mails.   In so doing they found the gmail account used by Petraeus and Broadwell to discuss their affair.

In September US Attorney General Eric Holder was notified of the investigation.  The FBI said they didn’t think there was any security breach but wanted to continue to investigate whether or not Petraeus had a role in the harassing e-mails.    On October 27 Republican House majority leader Eric Cantor was notified as well.   At this point it seems that people wanted to keep the matter quiet.  If it’s just an affair, better to not have it destroy the career of Petraeus, whose success in Iraq helped make him a national hero.   Holder didn’t tell the White House or Director of National Intelligence James Clapper; Cantor didn’t tell House Speaker John Boehner.

Something happened after the second FBI interview with the principles in late October.   Within a week, Petraeus had resigned.   (UPDATE:  According to the Washington Post, it may have been Cantor’s involvement that actually caused the case to go public.  In their report Petraeus is indeed a subject of the e-mails sent to Kelley, and the FBI was relaxing the investigation when an upset agent contacted a Representative who contacted Cantor who called the FBI director…I’ll not add any more updates to this fast changing story.)

Attractive, athletic, married and a mom, Paula Broadwell made the rounds selling her biography of David Petraeus, “All In.”

Even as jaws were dropping about Petraeus’ resignation the issue got more complicated.   Jill Kelley is the social liaison to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, home to the military’s Central Command and Special Operations Command.   She and her husband have been friends with Petraeus and his wife for a long time.

While at first some thought this could be a love triangle, it appears that the e-mails hardly mentioned Petraeus and were more like a “cat fight.”   Broadwell apparently thought Kelley was strutting around the base with too much verve and should be taken down a notch.   Kelley was mystified by these mysterious but troubling e-mails and notified the FBI.   Since the e-mails contained no overt threat the FBI almost didn’t investigate.   After consulting the laws they decided there was enough to warrant looking further.

Was it just childish jealousy that caused Boadwell to start harassing Kelley?

But the plot was to thicken yet again.   During the investigation the FBI  found 20,000 to 30,000 e-mails exchanged between Kelley and General John Allen between 2010 and 2012.     That’s at least 20 to 30 a day on average, every day for nearly three years!

That the commander in Afghanistan spent so much communicating with a party planner in Tampa raises eyebrows.   For now hearings scheduled this week for his promotion to head the US European Command and become Commander of NATO forces has been put on hold.   If he did have an affair with Kelley he could face a court-martial as adultery is against Army law (Petraeus smartly started his affair after he left the military).   He claims there was no wrong doing.

What to make of all this?   Well, Broadwell’s book about Petraeus received a sales boost from the news, even if her husband had to cancel her 40th Birthday party.     Holly Petraeus is justifiably outraged:  a good military wife for 37 years and her husband cheats with a woman who appears to be an egomaniac, albeit a well built and attractive egomaniac?

But is there more?   Tweets with Broadwell and Karl Rove have surfaced, rumors about Libya — did the CIA hold prisoners in the Libyan embassy that the attackers wanted to free? — and a host of other questions swirl about.  All of this has a kind of soap opera quality, something Jon Stewart mocked as “Spyfall.”   For now we have wait and see how this will unravel.   A few lessons though:

1.  All would be cheaters who want to use sneaky facebook or e-mail account tricks to hide your affair – don’t try.   If the head of the CIA using al qaeda like tactics can’t even get away with hiding his tracks, anyone can get caught!

2.   Pillow talk and sexual desire can take down even the strongest and most powerful among us, from Sampson and Delilah to Petraeus and Broadwell.

And finally,

3.   The themes of sex, power and war that Aristophanes explored over 2500 years ago are valid yet today.   For all our progress and technology, men still think with their light sabers.

 

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Victims?

Staff Sgt. Robert Bales has been identified as the soldier who went on a killing rampage in Afghanistan, perhaps dooming the US mission there.

A soldier goes on a rampage and kills 16 Afghan civilians, causing outrage and anger among the Afghani people.   How would we like it if a foreign soldier killed innocent Americans?   Shocked, we are quick to point out that the entire military can’t be judged by looking at a ‘bad apple,’ and that Bales doesn’t reflect the attitude of most American soldiers.

True.  Bales is 38, the father of two (ages 3 and 4), and on his fourth tour of duty, two of them in Iraq.    His family said he was not a mean, aggressive or angry man.  He hadn’t wanted to go to Afghanistan this time; the constant tours interrupted his life.   Apparently he was in a strong marriage that showed tension due to his absences.  He was injured more than once, one concussion that could have possibly caused brain damage.   The day before the rampage, he saw the leg blown off a friend of his.   Before the rampage, he had been drinking heavily.

This makes me immensely sad for both him and his family.   I write that without meaning to show any insensitivity to the Afghan victims; their deaths are tragic.   Families have been torn asunder by these killings – children had their lives cut short, the pain to those remaining is immense.

However, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is extremely common amongst soldiers who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we in Farmington learned last year when a local man apparently confronted police with a desire to be killed.  When soldiers are sent back over and over, facing immense pressure and hardship, even a strong, ethical person can crack.   Add alcohol, perhaps a brain injurty (and PTSD is itself a kind of brain injury), and a man who could have had a life as a successful family man with a career in the military faces a very uncertain future.   He probably will only know his children indirectly as they grow.  Although he must accept responsibility for his actions, his mental health was a victim of war, stress and government policy. Think of all those who suffer and don’t get and often don’t seek help.

A sad face

On Wednesday in the nearby town of Jay, Frank Smith took a man hostage at the Verso paper mill, holding him most of the day.  He released the hostage at about 3:30 and gave himself up a couple hours later.   I stopped at the Hannaford grocery store in Jay that day and saw about 20 logging trucks parked in the parking lot as they couldn’t make their deliveries to the locked down mill.

I don’t know the details of Frank Smith’s case.   Comments left by readers in the article I just linked give a clue.   Despite working there almost 25 years he was apparently fired for a minor infraction, spraying a co-worker who had sprayed him with a hose.  Moreover, there are a few comments that the mill treats employees like disposable tools — after all, with high unemployment, there is an excess of people wanting to work.

If so, that’s appalling.   You don’t fire a 50 year old in this economy — especially not in central Maine — unless you have to.   To look at this as hard discipline would be perverse.  Discipline him, but recognize that firing a man in his position is may destroy his finances and cause severe disruption to his life.   Now, most fifty somethings who lose their jobs can handle it, just like most in the military can handle PTSD without going on a killing spree or wanting death.   But if you have the right mix of circumstances, such things can cause a downward spiral.   And don’t forget – it only takes a moment of bad decision making to change life completely.   You can do good things for years and one mistake can destroy all that.

Jason Russell, whose work on Invisible Children and Kony 2012 have garnered attention, was detained in San Diego.

The last case is that of Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, who was detained by police because of strange behavior, charges of public masturbation and vandalism.   However, the police did not arrest him, they decided that what he needed was medical care and sent him to the hospital.   The Invisible Children network put out this statement:

“Jason Russell was unfortunately hospitalized yesterday suffering from exhaustion, dehydration, and malnutrition. He is now receiving medical care and is focused on getting better. The past two weeks have taken a severe emotional toll on all of us, Jason especially, and that toll manifested itself in an unfortunate incident yesterday. Jason’s passion and his work have done so much to help so many, and we are devastated to see him dealing with this personal health issue. We will always love and support Jason, and we ask that you give his entire family privacy during this difficult time.”

In this case it’s clear that a man’s passion and effort to help the victims of children and war will find his personal reputation and even his cause harmed by an incident that seems out of place with who he is.   While some conspiracy theorists have suggested powerful people wanted to destroy him, it’s likely given the statements that he had a mental health issue (from the description it could be bipolar disorder).

Are these three men victims too?  Victim is perhaps the wrong word.  They are symptoms of something wrong in our culture, a kind of human expression of the danger of pushing people to the edge in a society that has become so individualistic that people are left to fend for themselves emotionally.   When mental health is the issue — as it is in all three of these cases, apparently — we don’t forgive or understand, at least not in society at large. .

But whether it’s the soldier pushed over the edge, the fired worker whose life now seems hopeless, or the activist whose mental illness threatens to derail his work and reputation, I can’t help but think that all of us could end up in a similar place given the wrong circumstances.  As a society we need to learn to be more understanding and less judgmental.

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Leave Afghanistan Now

Tom Hanks and Charlie Wilson - Hanks played Wilson in "Charlie Wilson's War"

One of the better foreign policy movies is Charlie Wilson’s War, a story about how a relatively obscure Texas Democratic Congressman helped guide the US towards funding the largest covert operation in history.   To be sure, it ended up covert in name only, as it was clear to everyone by the mid eighties that US support was fueling the Afghan mujahideen in their battle against the Soviets.

The film is delightfully entertaining and demonstrates how some of the inner workings of DC politics and bureaucracy can impact policy.  In the public eye the President takes the lead, but rarely is it that simple.   The film also shows the dangers of blow back.   The mujahideen, or “soldiers of God” were fiercely anti-Communist.   There’s a scene in the film where the Foreign Operations Subcommittee Chair Doc Long is giving a speech in Afghanistan, telling the people that they would win because it is good vs. evil, and God is on their side.   Seen now in the light of 9-11, it the exuberant reaction is eerily frightening.    Yes, this was a movie, but CNN’s Cold War series also shows then National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski saying essentially the same thing in 1980.

More poignant is the fact that in hindsight its obvious that the side we were supporting turned against us.    It’s clear that while Pakistan was helping us beat the Soviets by funneling weapons to the rebels, they were choosing the most extremist groups to fund, ignoring others like the fighters of Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was more moderate.  Massoud, a leader of a group called the “northern alliance” got virtually none of the weapons and was himself assassinated on September 9, 2001 to try to disrupt the anti-Taliban forces just before the 9-11 attacks.    In fact, the Taliban itself was a creation of the Pakistani secret police, the ISI.

The Koran burning incident was called the "worst US PR disaster in the entire Afghan war." It held that title for about a week and a half.

In most foreign ventures the US tries to get by “on the cheap.”   It’s politically and economically costly to send troops and  personnel into diverse conflicts, especially when it’s not clear why the conflict is important.   Look at what happened in Vietnam and Iraq, after all!

Even in Afghanistan in 2001 the US tried to outsource most of the fighting to the Northern Alliance, allowing them to defeat the Taliban.   The US seemed not to really get all the rivalries and intricacies of Afghani culture and politics, for soon the US pushed off responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan to NATO and shifted attention to Iraq.   That’s where the neo-conservative dream of the US transforming the region and spreading democracy went up in flames.

As Iraq was becoming increasingly critical, Afghanistan was slowly disintegrating.   It started with stories of a Taliban resurgence, growing corruption, and a lack of control of most of the country by the central government in Kabul.  By the time the Iraq war had finally been ended Afghanistan became the dominant security problem.   President Obama tried to solve it in typical US fashion – on the cheap.

The "situation room" where President Obama worked with his advisors to try to find the right course of action in Afghanistan.

Rather than leave or go in big, he opted for a smaller force designed to train the Afghans so they eventually could handle their own affairs.   After some major fighting to try to put the Taliban off balance, the effort shifted towards an advise and assist role.   But we are still there.

The argument for staying is that we need to avoid neglecting Afghanistan like we did after 1989.   We need to make sure that if the Taliban does become part of government, it will be a reformed Taliban.   We need to have boots on the ground to act in the name of counter-terrorism thanks to residue al qaeda and Taliban operatives who still dream of hitting the US.

Any good the US presence can do is rapidly undone by images like this - a child shot by an American soldier (her grandmother is with the body).

None of those arguments are persuasive.   All could be done through covert operations, information sharing, and the usual counter-terrorism methods.    It’s likely that a total withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan in 2012 instead of 2014 (about 90,000 are there now) would not alter the long term course of the country.   In fact, it might even help.

Consider two recent incidents: violence caused by Koran burnings by the US military, and a rogue soldier who went on a rampage and killed at least 16 civilians.   The cost of these incidents is immense.   It does more to push people away from a pro-US position than anything the Taliban could do, and undermines both the safety of the troops and the potential success of the mission.  Arguably it makes those who work with the US look like collaborators with a foreign occupier.

At least 16 Afghan civilians were killed by an America soldier who apparently lost control. To me, that soldier is also a victim of the war -- what kind of life might he have had if not for being put in these circumstances?

The US has been in Afghanistan for over ten years — longer than the Soviets were there.  The famed “killer of empires” hasn’t brought the US down, at least not yet, but it has proven itself again unconquerable.  60% of Americans now say the war wasn’t worth fighting.   Originally anger at Osama made the war immensely popular, President Obama called it ‘the good war’ in the 2008 campaign.   Now, people want out.  It’s a drag on US policy, the military, and our efforts to win hearts and minds in the Islamic world.

There will be a lot of pondering on what went wrong, could things have been done differently, were we wrong to choose war in 2001 or whether or not we misread and misplayed Pakistan and other regional powers.   While President Obama’s caution about leaving too quickly is understandable — and certainly based on military advice, since this is one President who listens to his advisers — it’s time to extricate ourselves from this situation.  Osama bin Laden is dead, al qaeda is in shambles, and the world is a much different place than in 2001.   It’s not fair to our military personnel to keep them in a fight that will have no clear end, and which has already caused hardship and harm to many military personnel and their families.   It’s not in our national interest to let this conflict continue to drag the country down.   Time to come home.

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The Folly of Striking Iran

Iran's Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei

Right now President Obama’s chances of re-election look good.    The Republicans are in disarray, he has no primary challenger and most importantly the economy appears on an upswing.   Taken together, the stars are aligning for the President better than any time since early in his Administration.   In politics, timing is everything.   However, lurking under the radar screen of most Americans is the possibility of an Israeli or (less likely) American strike on suspected Iranian nuclear facilities.

Already President Obama is being criticized for not giving Israel high tech bunker busting weaponry that could increase the chances (but not guarantee) that an Israeli strike would work.    The CIA has consistently said that they do not think Iran is close to possessing a nuclear weapon and many doubt they actually want to go through with producing one.   There are also serious doubts about Iran’s delivery systems.

The reason both Presidents Bush and Obama have tried to hold Israel back is that such a strike is not at all in the US national interest.   A nuclear Iran (like the nuclear North Korea) would be an irritant, but not a major threat.

If Israel or the US struck Iran, however, the results could be devastating.  Oil prices would certainly skyrocket putting the economy back into recession just in time for the election.    President Obama would likely lose, especially if his base was infuriated by him starting another offensive war.   The Euro crisis would deepen as well, and the world economy would be back where it was in 2008 – or worse.   And that’s a best case scenario!

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak: What are they thinking?

In a worst case scenario the bombing unleashes a series of attacks on US interests in the region.   The Shi’ites in Iraq radicalize and ally with Iran, the Taliban uses this to incite the youth in Afghanistan, Hezbollah and Hamas launch terror strikes against Israel, and the region drifts towards the worst regional war since 1973.

Hezbollah remains a threat - one that Israel underestimated in 2006

Oil prices could rise to astronomical heights, the straits of Hormuz could be closed, Saudi oil facilities attacked, and unrest against even stable regimes like that of Saudi Arabia could grow.

From the US perspective there is little upside to an attack on Iran.   The only interest the Iranians can directly threaten is the oil supply, but the risk is small.   Especially since prices are unlikely to drop precipitously, the US and Iran share an interest in keeping Persian Gulf oil flowing.   And the Carter doctrine still applies – nobody thinks that Iranian nukes would deter a US response to Iranian aggression threatening the flow of oil.  Iran would be loathe to escalate such a crisis to the nuclear level since that would mean the end of the Islamic Republic.

The Persian Gulf

Iran’s power would grow in a region includes the Arab states, Israel, Russia, China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.   All other things being equal the US would prefer Iran be a weaker rather than a stronger regional power, but there are many options to balance Iranian power and contain any effort to extend it.   There would be concerns of further proliferation, but there would be many ways to prevent that.

Another indirect threat would be that Iran would give nuclear technology to terror organizations.   That sounds scary, but a country that works hard to gain a nuclear weapon does not give up control of them to people they can’t control.    Even now Iran limits what it gives groups like Hezbollah – and the Iranians certainly don’t want Hezbollah hotheads provoking a nuclear strike on Iran!

Remembering how wrong the US was about the Iraq war it would be a mistake to assume an attack on Iran would be low risk.   The war in Iraq was supposed to be easy, cheap, and yield a stable, safe pro-American ally offering us permanent regional bases.   None of that turned out to be the case.

The main dangers in striking Iran:  1)  There might be no benefit at all as Iran may have successfully decoyed its program; 2) This could severely undercut the reform movement in Iran, whose success would do more than anything to support US regional interests; 3)  After years of decreased influence and appeal, al qaeda and other radical groups could benefit from the US launching another war of aggression and the terrorist threat could spike dramatically, undermining our counter-terrorism efforts; 4) An oil price spike could not only bring us back into recession, but if the crisis were to drag on global depression is quite possible; 5) Iran could respond to an attack by escalating the war to create regional instability.

In the case of number 5, the US would see no alternative but to try to create “regime change” in Tehran.   This would cause unrest in the US.   Strong, angry domestic opposition to such a war would be far more intense than the opposition to the war in Iraq – national stability would be jeopardized, especially if an unpopular war were to be accompanied by deep recession or depression.    In short, this could lead to a crisis far more severe than any yet faced by the US or perhaps the industrialized West in the modern era.

Protests against the Iraq war were relatively mild; a war with Iran could unleash far more division

To be sure, it is possible that a strike could succeed and Iran would refrain from responding.  That’s the best case scenario.    The best case scenario is probably more likely than the worst case scenario, though most likely is something in between.

I cannot imagine people at the Pentagon and in the Department of Defense seeing any persuasive rationale for a strike against Iran.   I can imagine they will pull all the stops to assure that Israel refrain from its own strike, perhaps even suggesting that US support for the Jewish state cannot be assured if they start the war.

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Discarded Veterans

“Within the universe of total war, equipped with weapons that can kill hundreds or thousands of people in seconds, soldiers only have time to reflect later.  By then these soldiers often have been discarded, left as broken men in a civilian society that does not understand them and does not want to understand them…Discarded veterans are never a pretty sight.  They are troubled and some physically maimed.  They often feel betrayed, misunderstood and alone.  It is hard to integrate again into peacetime society.  Many are shunted aside, left to nuture their resentment and pain.”
Chris Hedges, from “War is a Force that Gives us Meaning.”

As troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, expect the same scene to play itself out over and over.   Parades welcoming home the troops, signs and cheers from citizens grateful for the sacrifices made.    Waves from returning veterans, smiles, and thank yous will be shared.   Perhaps a rally or two, hugs and then everyone goes home.

Yet if you look at the statistics, combat veterans have markedly higher divorce rates, suicide rates, incidents of domestic abuse, and depression.    Most of this is caused by post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition which haunts at least a third of combat veterans.   It damages the brain, meaning that it can show itself as a variety of mental disorders from anxiety and stress to even bipolar disorder and other conditions.

There is no way someone like me who has never been in the military can really know what these people go through.   We can only imagine what it must be like, as a young man or woman, to enter the service full of enthusiasm to serve ones’ country and protect it from foes, and then be thrown in conditions that nobody can truly be prepared for.    Moreover, given multiple deployments, many have to go through this over and over, constantly juxtaposing civilian life with military life.

Not everyone in the military experiences combat the same way.   Elite units such as Army Rangers or Navy Seals experience it with more intensity than others.   Some units see a lot of combat, for others it’s limited.    Some people lose most of their buddies, others only a few.  Some people know they’ve killed innocents, usually by mistake, others know they have not.   No one leaves unaffected, but most manage to patch things together and go on with life.   Some resilient people come out strengthened by the experience, others seek to forget it.

On Thanksgiving it’s normal to thank veterans.   Even those of us who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan know that almost everyone in the military went out of love for the country and its liberties.   If the wars were wrong, the blame rests on the politicians, not the soldiers.    We assume that the military with its VA hospitals and GI bills takes care of veterans after they come home, integrating them into life.   We assume that benefits for veterans are generous.

It’s not that simple.   A case here in Farmington of a former Army Ranger Justin Crowley-Smilek brings that home.     On Saturday November 19th he was shot with deadly force by a member of the Farmington police force.   Apparently he had gone to the door of the municipal building (which currently houses the police force) and knocked.   When the officer opened it and asked what he wanted a confrontation ensued, with the officer shooting Crowley-Smilek four times.

Crowley-Smilek had been in trouble before, bringing an armed weapon to a University of Maine Farmington basketball game, and allegedly beating up someone outside a bar recently.   There have been a few such incidents since he returned from service in Afghanistan.    There he had been injured badly and came home with PTSD, taking numerous medications prescribed by the VA.   I never met the man, but from all accounts by family and loved ones he knew he had problems and had been trying to deal with them.

He confronted the officer on Saturday with nothing but a kitchen knife, leading many to criticize the officer and wonder why he couldn’t have just shot him in the leg or somehow disabled him.   The thing is, a small town cop against an Army Ranger, even one armed with just a kitchen knife, is not a fair fight.   I suspect Crowley-Smilek left him with no choice but to shoot.   Mostly likely it was the outcome the victim intended.

Justin Crowley-Smilek, killed November 19, 2011

Studies out there suggest that 40% of returning combat vets seek aid for mental health issues.   Many with problems do not seek aid.   When we send troops to war we debate a lot of things.   We ask if the war is just, discuss the cost, and of course worry about how many soldiers will be killed.  We don’t usually think of going to war in terms of dooming many young people to a life time of mental distress.   We also tend to ignore veterans after the war ends, except on particular holidays.

For instance, Congress finally passed a plan to help jobless vets.   The sad fact is that in this economy coming home from military combat often means leaving a job for unemployment.   Yet even that bill took a long time to pass because of political infighting — Republicans wanted to connect it with other jobs bills before they’d give in on this one.    Finally, realizing this would be an embarrassment, they joined for unanimous approval.

Yet overall we do a poor job of taking care of veterans after they return.   How many suicides, divorces, addictions and messed up lives does it take until people see that ‘support the troops’ does not mean ‘support the war’ or ‘come out and cheer at parades?’

We are entering a new post-war era, as Iraq and Afghanistan both wind down.   Hundreds of thousands of vets involved in those wars will be coming home to a society that can either welcome them and give them the care and help reintegrating that they deserve, or cheer and say thanks and then discard them.   I did not support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in part because of what this would mean for many American military families.    Our leaders chose to get into those wars and send young men and women over to often experience events that they can never truly escape.

To be sure, the majority can handle it, but there is a large minority who cannot, and that causes considerable suffering.  As a society if we can choose to pay the terrible costs of going to war we have to be prepared to pay whatever the cost is to take care of those who return scarred both physically and psychologically.   That is the true way to be thankful for their service and to support the troops.

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No Need to Fear Islam

When I was in 7th grade I remember hearing about Islam for the first time, at least in an educational setting.   Our teacher, Mrs. Gors, asked us what religion was closest to Christianity.   Most people thought it was Judaism.  She said that she thought it was Islam, and she explained the basics of the Islamic faith.   I don’t remember much else, only that I was intrigued by the fact there were other religions that were well developed and had a considerable following.   Perhaps it sticks in my memory because that opened my mind to the fact that perhaps I was Christian simply by dint of geography.

Of course the rise of Islamic extremism with the Iranian revolution caused the faith’s reputation in the West to take a hit, but not a fatal one.   After all, there are Christian extremists as well.   During the 90s brutality against Bosnian Muslims and later Albanian Muslims in Kosovo painted the picture of Muslims as victims, minorities in a culture that was defined by brutal nationalism.

Then came 9-11.   Suddenly a man with an extreme, radical and bizarre interpretation of Islam launched an attack on the US.    19 of us followers managed to shock and anger (and awe) the country with the use of box cutters, hijacked planes and spectacular destruction.   For Americans the Taliban and al qaeda became the face if Islam.   Instead of being a great and popular faith spread over North Africa and down into Asia, it was seen by many as dangerous and scary.

Muhammad went from a prophet that people didn’t know much about to a demonized caricature, the most extreme forms of Islam became posited as the norm; the Koran was misinterpreted and taken out of context to make it seem like Muslims were commanded to kill all others.  Out of fear and ignorance people constructed an “other” that was irrational, unreasonable, unwilling to change, and therefore an enemy that had to be defeated.

Islam is a great world religion that is not going to go away, and trying to repress Muslim political expression is not only futile, but likely to create more harm than good.  The Ottoman Empire’s repression of peoples’ political voice and embrace of a very conservative form of Islam set up current difficulties.   Those problems are real but can be overcome.   The region has to start progressing, which means bringing all voices, including those of fundamentalists and extremists, into the mix.   There is no other way.

The US can facilitate this with a clear message:  We will not get involved in your internal affairs, we will assist you when our mutual interests make that possible, and we will respect our cultural differences.  All we ask in return is not to be seen as or treated as enemies.   For almost all Muslims that would be welcomed and start a path to a good relationship.

If not for the Israeli-Palestinian issue, that would be enough.    There can never be true normalcy in the region as long as the Arabs (and to a lesser extent non-Arab Muslims) see Palestinians being humiliated and denied basic rights in the occupied territories.    That doesn’t mean Israel is completely to blame, they’re in a tough spot with Hamas and Hezbollah kindling trouble: who can blame them for being hesitant?  But there is hope.

The Arabs blew the first opportunity in 1948 when they could have had a state containing far more territory than what they now could possibly dream of when they rejected the UNSCOP plan (Israel accepted it and declared statehood on its basis).   After losing the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948 the Arabs could have accepted their defeat.   They would have kept East Jerusalem and been able to construct a Palestinian state with no issues of Israeli territory.   Not wanting to compromise kept them from results that now would be seen as major Israeli concessions.

Yet Israel has also proven unwilling to entertain ideas that could finalize Palestinian borders.  My own view is that Arafat should have taken Ehud Barak’s 1999 proposals, but Israel could show some leeway on East Jerusalem and Palestinian borders.  If they had done that in 1999 then Hamas might not have become a factor, Hezbollah would be easier to counter, and a main irritant in Mideast relations could have been avoided.   Both sides are to blame, and neither side can “win” — the Arabs won’t push the Jews into the sea, the Jews won’t push the Arabs into the desert.

Though the positions there have intensified in the last decade, ultimately the two peoples’ destinies are linked.  They’ll fight or they’ll make peace, but neither will make the other go away.   One cannot be pro-Israel without being pro-Palestinian, or pro-Palestinian without being pro-Israel.   That irony is the biggest obstacle to piece, neither side wants to truly accept their shared destiny.

Still, after a decade of pessimism there may be cause for optimism.   As the Arab world changes, so to will change come in thoughts about Israel.   One reason the issue has remained so hot is that it was useful for the dictators to have something to unite their people around.   Now as Arab peoples slowly start moving into modernism and away from the old repressive regimes, they’ll need to rethink what is best for them and their respective states.

Islam is not anti-Jewish; the Koran commands respect for the other religions of Abraham, Judaism and Christianity.   Muhammad had many Jewish friends and allies.     Political Islam could actually hasten acceptance of a settlement in Israel by shifting the tone.    After all, religion only entered the conflict late, before 1973 it was about European colonizers taking Arab land, not Jews taking Muslim land.

First and foremost is to make sure that the West does not fear political Islam in the Mideast, or treat it as an enemy, thereby setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy.   Second, treating political Islam without fear does not mean ignoring our values.   A Taliban like state will have to be opposed.    If new leaders start acting like the old ones in denying people a voice, our support should be lukewarm.   We shouldn’t fear them, but shouldn’t treat them different from other third world states where we reward democracy (or at least moves towards more openness) and refrain from supporting authoritarians (especially now that the Cold War is over).   Finally, we need patience.   Modernism came to Europe from 1300 to 1900, and during that time there were wars, plagues, holocausts, ideological extremism, slavery and sexism.  Even in the last Century we had 11 killed by Nazis under Hitler, 20 million by Communists under Stalin.

Their transition need not be so messy, we’ve shown one possible path to modernism.  The Arab world and other Muslim states will choose their own path, not exactly like ours, but we can help avoid the extremes.   But we shouldn’t expect it to be smooth, nor should we give up on them because they don’t quickly leap into modernity.   We’re entering a new era, full of danger and promise.

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