a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Alyssa Peterson, R.I.P.

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 2nd November 2006

From Flagstaff, Arizona, this KNAU report:

According to the Army’s investigation into her death, obtained by a KNAU reporter through the Freedom of Information Act, Peterson objected to the interrogation techniques used on prisoners. She refused to participate after only two nights working in the unit known as the cage. Army spokespersons for her unit have refused to describe the interrogation techniques Alyssa objected to. They say all records of those techniques have now been destroyed.

Instead she was assigned to the base gate, where she monitored Iraqi guards. She was sent to suicide prevention training. But on the night of September 15th, 2003, Army investigators concluded she shot and killed herself with her service rifle.

She shouldn’t be dead, they shouldn’t be free.

NOTES: Via Amanda Marcotte (“Pandagon”) and Roxanne (“Rox Populi”). Crossposted at “Never in Our Names.”
UPDATE, 11/2: There’s an Arizona Republic article from 2003 about Ms. Peterson. There are also tributes to Alyssa Peterson at the Fallen Heroes Memorial web site, from friends, family and visitors. I’m guessing many but not all of them are from before this aspect of her story became known; one is from her father and begins “Hi my favorite soldier.” It’s probably needless to say, but I ask that you be extremely considerate if you leave a message there; not everything is about politics and not everyone shares yours or mine.
UPDATE, 11/2: KNAU has issued an unnecessary ‘correction’ that the Army report “does not conclude that those objections [to interrogation techniques] were related to her suicide.” They’ve also pulled the original story and .MP3 file, which seems unusual to me. I’d like a look at that Army investigative report myself now. Using the “Feedback” link on the bottom left of the correction page, I’ve asked KNAU to reconsider retracting the text and audio story, and to provide the FOIA documents.
FINAL UPDATE of 11/2: More at Editor and Publisher, via a Steve Benen mini-report item.
UPDATE, 11/6: Scott Horton (“Balkinization”) has more: To the Memory of Alyssa Peterson

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Healthcare for veterans petition

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 30th October 2006

The Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) organization hopes you’ll sign on to their “Healthcare for Our Heroes” petition urging Congress to fully fund veterans’ healthcare and benefits:

The men and women who fight for our freedom and safety should NOT have to fight to get the healthcare they deserve. More than 20,000 brave soldiers have been injured while serving in the current war on terror. Despite the sacrifices these men and women have made for our country, Congress recently tried to slash the budget for the VA’s traumatic brain injury care and research centers. Congress needs to know that anything short of fully funded healthcare and benefits for our veterans is unacceptable. Especially when VA claims backlogs have reached a record high of over 800,000!

Our veterans have earned the right to high quality healthcare. Sign the Healthcare for Our Heroes Petition to demand that Congress hold up its end of the bargain and provide full funding for veterans’ healthcare and benefits.

I mentioned the traumatic brain injury budget cut back in August. The Republican led Congress apparently believes it can throw wounded soldiers out with the trash; don’t let them get away with it. Whatever you think of the VFW’s other positions on defense issues, this is a petition I think most of us can get behind.

While you’re at it, consider donating to another good VFW initiative, Operation Uplink, which provides phone cards to active-duty military personnel and hospitalized veterans so they can call home on your dime and not their own.

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Too late for Haditha

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 8th June 2006

…General Casey and his folks are putting a lot of pressure on the terrorists and on the enemies of the government. I — we frequently call them insurgents. I’m a little reluctant to for some reason.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, November 29, 2005

“They didn’t even want to say the ‘i’ word,” one officer in Iraq told me. “It was the spectre of Vietnam. They did not want to say the ‘insurgency’ word, because the next word you say is ‘quagmire.’ The next thing you say is ‘the only war America has lost.’ And the next thing you conclude is that certain people’s vision of war is wrong.” […]

The refusal of Washington’s leaders to acknowledge the true character of the war in Iraq had serious consequences on the battlefield: in the first eighteen months, the United States government failed to organize a strategic response to the insurgency. Captain Jesse Sellars, a troop commander in the 3rd A.C.R. [Armored Calvary Regiment — ed.], who fought in some of the most violent parts of western Iraq in 2003 and 2004, told me about a general who visited his unit and announced, “This is not an insurgency.” Sellars recalled thinking, “Well, if you could tell us what it is, that’d be awesome.”
— from “The Lesson of Tal Afar,” George Packer, New Yorker, April 2006

The refusal to recognize the conflict for what it was meant that established doctrines about fighting insurgencies — roughly, invest most of your effort in political work and establishing local ties, and much less in military operations — were not followed systematically. Instead, different units adopted different improvised approaches. Packer:

In the absence of guidance, the 3rd A.C.R. adopted a heavy-handed approach, conducting frequent raids that were often based on bad information. The regiment was constantly moved around, so that officers were never able to form relationships with local people or learn from mistakes. Eventually, the regiment became responsible for vast tracts of Anbar province, with hundreds of miles bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria; it had far too few men to secure any area.

Gladiators versus Hajis
Haditha does not appear to have been a model of counterinsurgency work, either, to put it mildly. And the combat experience, strain, and mind-set of the company involved did not bode well.

In advance of Falluja, according to Newsweek magazine, men of Kilo Company – the one in Haditha – held a chariot race. They rounded up local horses, wore togas, played heavy metal music and made a “ball and chain studded with M-16 bullets.”

A company commander shouted a line from the film Gladiator in which the Romans declared before battle against the barbarians: “What you do here echoes in eternity.”

Now there is nothing new about warriors psyching themselves up for war. The issue is whether such attitudes became a mind-set for the marines fighting a less intensive, drawn-out and increasingly frustrating anti-guerrilla war. Some were on their third tour in as many years.

The wife of one unnamed sergeant in the unit has said there was “total breakdown” in discipline, with “drugs, alcohol, hazing [initiation ceremonies], you name it”. An American soldier jailed for refusing to return to Iraq has said that Iraqis were routinely called “Hajis” as the Vietnamese were called “gooks”.

Such a breakdown (of the “soldiers snap in battle” type) might explain an action by a particular unit, but it does not adequately put into context what appears to have been a lack of a proper counter-insurgency philosophy among the US Marine Corps. There was a vacuum in which such incidents were more likely to happen.
Haditha blow to new doctrine, Paul Williams, BBC (emphasis added)

It may seem odd and off-putting to dwell on a choice of military doctrine, of all things, after a sickening event like this one. There is much more than this that should be said about Haditha, and others already have: the human loss, the moral failure, the added stain on our country’s reputation. But the Haditha Kilo Company mind-set — seemingly similar to a street gang’s creed: revenge for the fallen brother — may also fit within the story of the hubris and incompetence of this war’s civilian leadership: their refusal to see their war for what it would be.

“It’s impossible to believe they didn’t know”
The other day I was asked why I hadn’t written about Haditha yet, given all my past posts about Abu Ghraib. The answer was partly that I hadn’t figured out how to think about what had happened. Unlike Abu Ghraib, there seems no evidence of specific policies leading to the (alleged) crime, at least not yet, as far as I know. (Barring the specific policy of invading Iraq in the first place, of course.)

On the other hand, the military’s response to Haditha now appears to have been lackadaisical at best, and a coverup at worst. And that is very similar to the glacial progress in investigating and punishing prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib to Bagram to Gardez. There’s no interest in it, because there’s no future in it. That’s ominous, of course, because it means there may well be other Hadithas out there, initially buried in reports as “collateral damage” or “firefights with terrorists,” relying on the lack of interest back home. Indeed, reports of similar alleged crimes are now surfacing, e.g., the Ishaqi incident.

Speaking to the New York Times, an anonymous Marine general familiar with the investigation said of some officers in the chain of command, “It’s impossible to believe they didn’t know… You’d have to know this thing stunk.” As Michael O’Hare (“Reality Based Community”) points out,

…it’s not about the tiny percentage of troops who do bad when all the others are doing good; it’s about the high percentage of the management structure that’s learned to hide, lie, and cover up the work that needs doing, and the repeatedly, doggedly, incompetent leadership that made it that way.

Fixing failure
The failure to understand the kind of conflict we were fighting might be a fundamental cause of the shame of Haditha. If just saying the word “insurgency” was a no-no, then it wasn’t likely many officers would lead and train units to properly fight a counterinsurgency, instead of leaving individual units to figure out their own methods — or just relying on firepower and getting even. Reporting the truth about the enemy, their tactics, and our own soldiers’ mind-sets could easily seem useless at best, when those issues were recognized at all. After all, some officers in the Haditha chain of command may have also shared the street gang mind-set of Kilo Company — or the “insurgency? what insurgency?” mind-set of their civilian leadership.

Packer writes that American combat officers are now learning how to wage a counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq, despite the slow start their superiors in the Pentagon gave them. That’s good, I guess; better a sensible approach than a random or senseless one, barring getting out altogether.

The question is whether it’s good enough. The subtitle to Packer’s New Yorker article is “Is it too late for the Administration to correct its course in Iraq?” If that’s supposed to mean “correct the course to fight and win in Iraq,” I suspect the answer is yes, it’s too late.

But I’m sure it’s too late for Haditha.

NOTES: “impossible to believe” quote via Mark Kleiman; “similar alleged crimes” leads to Gary Farber’s valuable weekend roundup of Haditha/Ishaqi/related news.

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House Republicans to servicewomen: scr*w you

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 29th May 2005

Just in time for Memorial Day, a National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) e-mailing reports on the latest outrage from the House:

House Republican leaders refused to allow debate or votes on two amendments that would have provided compassionate health care to military women who’ve been raped. The first would have ensured that the morning-after pill, ordinary birth control pills that can prevent pregnancy after sex or assault, is made available to servicewomen at every military base. The second amendment would have allowed women to use their military health insurance for abortion care in cases of rape or incest.

NARAL comments that rapes of servicewomen rose 25% in 2004. The House didn’t leave it at that, either:

Military women were also yet again denied the right to access abortion care at military facilities overseas when the House defeated an amendment to repeal a ban that forbids servicewomen and female military dependents from using their own money to pay for an abortion at overseas military hospitals.(emphasis added)

Is that even constitutional? (I mean right now. I’m sure it will be in a few years.)

For more on the amendments that were voted down, here’s are NARAL press releases about the denial of self-funded abortions, and the denial of morning-after pills. If you want to get more of this kind of news — and after all, who doesn’t — here’s a NARAL Pro-Choice signup form. NARAL also maintains a blog called Bush v. Choice.

UPDATE, 5/29: Sunday New York Times editorial: “Disrespecting Women Soldiers.”

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The no-longer all-volunteer, combat-ready army

Posted by Thomas Nephew on 22nd September 2004

Soldiers are being given the choice between re-enlisting… and being reassigned to units due to ship out to Iraq. From a report by Dick Foster of the Rocky Mountain News:

They told us if we don’t re-enlist, then we’d have to be reassigned. And where we’re most needed is in units that are going back to Iraq in the next couple of months. So if you think you’re getting out, you’re not,’ he said.

(Via Southknoxbubba.) Nice move, Pentagon: do everything possible to make volunteers for the armed forces feel like chumps.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s Tom Ricks reports that a South Carolina National Guard unit — the 178th Field Artillery Regiment, which has now shipped out to the Iraq theater — had been under disciplinary lockdown since after Labor Day, for infractions including alcohol on base, multiple AWOLs (to visit family), and a near-brawl within the regiment that MPs had to break up. Ricks:

This Guard unit was put on an accelerated training schedule — giving the soldiers about 36 hours of leave over the past two months — because the Army needs to get fresh troops to Iraq, and there are not enough active-duty or “regular” troops to go around. […]

These soldiers will be based in northern Kuwait and will escort supply convoys into Iraq. That is some of the toughest duty on this mission, with every trip through the hot desert bringing the possibility of being hit by roadside bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and sniper fire.

As you can tell from the regiment’s designation, this is not the duty the unit was designed for. Phillip Carter*, a former Army officer and current “individual ready” reservist, comments:

Sending this unit into harm’s way under these conditions would be tantamount to negligence and dereliction of duty — or worse. This is a formula for disaster. A unit without cohesion and good leadership will crumble under the strain of combat, and the daily strain of operations in Iraq. Worse yet, this unit lacks the fundamental discipline to do the right thing in a complex operational environment like Iraq, where the undisciplined actions of one Private First Class (see, e.g., Lynndie England) could have a strategic impact on the world. Discipline is absolutely essential for a unit like this, where live bullets and shifting rules of engagement make every decisions a critical one.(emphasis added)

Carter feels that this unit should have been broken up and that most of its leaders should have been fired. Instead, they’re in Kuwait or on their way there by now, so let’s all hope the 178th and other units like them do all right after all. And it could always be worse: Gary Farber sees the portents of a draft in the story, and he may be right.


* Carter’s “Intel Dump” is one of the upper tier of worthwhile blogs by and for grown-ups: focused, sensible, and readable. Incidentally, this pull-quote looks like Carter subscribes to the “few bad apples” school of thought about Abu Ghraib, which I don’t think is the case.

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