US Military in Crisis

Here is an item about the situation in Iraq from the New York Times on June 1, 2004. “After a loose power line on a side street [in Baghdad] began making noises that sounded like gunshots, one soldier fired a burst from his M-16 down the street, sending dozens of bystanders behind him racing for cover.”

That sentence was buried in a piece by Edward Wong in Baghdad, assisted by “an Iraqi employee of the New York Times [who] contributed reporting from Najaf”, and very good journalism it is, too. Mr Wong and his understandably anonymous colleague in Najaf tell it like it is, and we should all hope their reportage continues.

But one of the main points, missed by many who have never had military experience, is that a US soldier, with no threat whatever to his safety, fired his rifle along a street. He did not actually aim his weapon at anyone, because nobody had shot at him. There was a noise : a crack-crack-crack, that sounded something like small arms’ fire. It wasn’t. But he sprayed unaimed automatic fire along a street in a city : Brrrrrrrrrrrrpppp; just like that.

Long long ago, the automatic reaction by a soldier to being fired at was “Down. Crawl. Observe. Sights. Fire.” Please let me explain.

When you heard the crack-thump of a bullet, or the bang of a grenade, or any disquieting loud noise that indicated that nasty people might be intent on making your life unpleasant or terminal, the first thing you were trained to do was GET DOWN. That makes sense, because whatever is on the ground beneath your feet offers at least some protection. You present a target that is a foot high rather than six-feet high, for a start. And that is where the second imperative comes in : CRAWL.

You crawled because the enemy knew where you were. He must have known that, because he saw you and fired at you. Therefore it made sense to remove your body from the spot in which he last saw it. But then you must reply to the fire directed upon you. So : OBSERVE.

Don’t let’s be silly about this : you don’t poke your head above a wall. You find a position from which you can observe the enemy without being fired at again by the same hopeful foe. You observe where the enemy is in order to kill him. Then there is SIGHTS. In the olden days this meant that a soldier, having identified the target at which to return fire, would estimate the distance between him and the enemy, then set the sights on his weapon to that range before firing aimed shots at the enemy.

‘FIRE!’ was the last of the quintet of commandments. It didn’t take long to return fire. Say a milli-second to get DOWN. A minute, perhaps, to CRAWL to see where the enemy was located. A further moment (for a properly-trained soldier) to OBSERVE. An instant to set SIGHTS. And then the identified enemy was DEAD.

But nowadays, when some electrical wiring goes snap-crackle-pop, it seems there is no question of a soldier getting down or observing or doing anything else, really, except loosing off his automatic weapon down a street in which there is no enemy.

We don’t know if any Iraqi civilians were killed during this ill-disciplined yippee shoot, because, obviously, Mr Wong wasn’t going to stick around to find out. And the mouthpiece in Iraq, Brigadier General Kimmit, couldn’t tell us, because his pronouncements have all the integrity and credibility of an FBI fingerprint investigation. But say there had been an official Kimmitt public relations report about the soldier who fired at random down the Baghdad Street, and it revealed that there had been Iraqis killed. It is quite certain that the news item, a tiny one of course, would have stated as absolute truth that five or a dozen or whatever Iraqis had been “killed in crossfire”. And most people would have believed it. The brief Reuters report of June 7 describing a roadside bombing sums it up : “[after the bomb went off] US soldiers opened fire on suspects fleeing the scene, wounding them, the spokeswoman said”. “Suspects”, indeed. If these Iraqis had known the bomb was there they would have made themselves scarce before the explosion. Of course they were fleeing : they were bystanders who were scared witless, and, as it proved, rightly so. But they are only ragheads, after all, in the eyes of bubba-land.

Here is a first-hand account of a similar and even more bizarre incident, by a US Civil Affairs officer, Captain Oscar Estrada, that appeared in the Washington Post on June 6 : “A unit ahead of us had reported taking fire and we rushed to the scene. Other patrols and M1 tanks soon arrived and we sat and waited, pointing our weapons into a date palm grove to the north. A small column of Humvees moved down a dirt road toward the grove, and all hell broke loose. I never heard a shot fired from the grove, but someone did, and then everyone was firing. “Hey, what the hell are we shooting at?” I screamed at my buddy as I continued to squeeze off rounds from my M-16. “I’m not sure! By that shack. You?” “I’m just shooting where everybody else is shooting.” But everybody else was shooting all over the place. Small puffs of white erupted in front of us as our own soldiers lobbed grenades at the grove but came up short; tracers from .50-caliber machine guns flew past us, and the smell of cordite filled the air. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the tumult ended. We sat in silence and listened to the crackling radios as a patrol dismounted from a couple of armored Humvees and began to search among the trees.

[Then came the radio transmissions.] “Dagger, this is Bravo 6. Do you have anything, over?” “Roger. We’re going to need a terp [interpreter]. We have a guy here who’s pretty upset. I think we killed his cow, over.” “Upset how, over?” “He can’t talk; I think he’s in shock. He looks scared, over.” “He should be scared. He’s the enemy.” “Uhm, ahh, Roger , 6 . . . he’s not armed and looks like a farmer or something.” “He was in the grove that we took fire from ; he’s a [expletive] bad guy!” “Roger”.”

That is straight from the horse’s mouth. You now doubt that the US Army indulges in deceit and deliberate lies? This is all horribly reminiscent of Vietnam, where the only good Viet was a dead Viet. The free-fire zone still exists in some military minds, and it now has its being in Iraqi date palm groves rather than Vietnamese paddy fields. Otherwise not much has changed, except that there are no body counts. Dead Iraqis don’t count ; literally and figuratively.

There are many more examples of deception. It isn’t just the attempts to cover up widespread torture and murder of prisoners that are despicable. Here is the official US Army citation concerning the award of a posthumous and hysterically-publicized bravery decoration to an American soldier who was killed in Afghanistan on April 22.

“Through the firing [soldier X’s] voice was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating high ground . . . Only after his team engaged the well-armed enemy did it appear their fires diminished. As a result of his leadership and his team’s efforts, the platoon trail section was able to maneuver through the ambush to positions of safety without a single casualty.”

But here is what really happened, according to a reliable source, an Afghan, who was reported by CBS News on May 29 as saying that “two groups of soldiers had drifted some distance apart during the operation in the remote Spera district of Khost province. ‘Suddenly the sound of a mine explosion was heard somewhere between the two groups and the Americans in one group started firing,’ the official said, citing an account given to him by an Afghan fighter who was part of that group . . . ‘Nobody knew what it was . . . or what was going on, or if enemy forces were firing. The situation was very confusing,’ the official said. ‘As the result of this firing, that American was killed and three Afghan soldiers were injured. It was a misunderstanding and afterwards they realized that it was a mine that had exploded and there were no enemy forces’.”

In other words, there was a monster stuff-up. And this sort of thing is far from unknown in battle : tragic disasters occur frequently. But what is astonishing and unforgivable is the deliberate, systematic, official, Bush-government-approved lying about what happened at the time.

It is evil and dishonorable that the account of the death of this young man was a Pentagon machine fabrication. The gallantry citation was a downright lie, forged for public relations’ purposes because soldier X had a national image. It has now been admitted (sort of) that it was a lie by the head of US Special Forces.

Please reflect on this part of the official handout that described outstanding bravery on the part of soldier X : “As a result of his leadership and his team’s efforts, the platoon trail section was able to maneuver through the ambush to positions of safety without a single casualty.” This did not take place. It is falsehood. A disgusting piece of deceit. But it was declared to the world by American officers. What has happened, for heaven’s sake, to truth and honor in the US military? How can it be possible that US officers can tell lies? The West Point Honor Code, after all, is “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do”, and this carries on into commissioned life where it is even more important, because officers command troops who expect them to set an example of rectitude and honor.

Let me tell you something personal : in my study, nestling among lots of mementos, surrounded by thousands of books, I have a mounted photograph, two and a half feet by one foot eight, of a parade at West Point. It was taken when the son of close friends (he is former US Army ; we served together) graduated a few years ago. My wife and I were there as guests of our chums, and we had a wonderful few days. Nobody can claim for an instant that I do not admire and respect what The Point should stand for. Not even the Bubba-Love-Bush team. I don’t need lessons in military ethos from wild-eyed warniks. But I fear that, given the pigswill-filthy atmosphere and culture of the Rumsfeld Pentagon, there are some military officers who have been sucked in to the lie-machine.

There was grudging admission that a lie had been told concerning the circumstances in which Private X died in Afghanistan when Lt-Gen Kensinger, the head of Special Forces, who refused to take questions after reading out his statement, conceded that “While there was no one specific finding of fault, the investigation results indicate that X probably died as a result of friendly fire while his unit was engaged in combat with enemy forces”. Kensinger said the alleged firefight took place in “very severe and constricted terrain with impaired light” with “10 to 12 enemy combatants firing on U.S. forces.” Note the use of the word ‘probably’. The man cannot even bring himself to be forthright in his admission that X was without any doubt killed by his fellow-soldiers. The Afghan witness states there were no enemy atall.

Little wonder Kensinger refused to be questioned by journalists, even little poodle ones, lying on their backs wanting their tummies rubbed, because there are lots of points to be raised. Here are some:

How many enemy were killed/wounded/captured in this alleged firefight? Why not allow some of the US soldiers involved in the incident to give their on-the-spot version of events? Are you saying that the Afghan soldier who gave a first-hand account of the blue-on-blue killing was telling lies? Was there explosion of a mine or some other device? [There are millions, literally millions, of unexploded mines in Afghanistan. Many are accidentally and fatally detonated by animals, or children herding animals, or women fetching firewood or water, or farmers cultivating their fields . I know this from first-hand experience in Afghanistan.]

More questions : The discredited citation for bravery on the part of soldier X said the enemy were “well-armed”. What were they armed with, and what enemy weapons were captured? Why, if there was such a force of “well-armed” enemy, was not air support called in? It is demanded in every other engagement, no matter how tiny. So why not this one? You say the incident took place in “very severe and constricted terrain”. Is this not exactly the terrain in which your own Special Forces are trained to operate without shooting each other? And, General Kensinger : why do you refuse to answer questions? There is no question of National Security being involved. There are no secrets affecting the security of the country in this tale of incompetence and deceit.

There are no answers to the questions that should be posed to the head of Special Forces, to which X belonged. Or at least none that would not severely embarrass the military system, which is why Kensinger refused to allow questions to be asked. He seems to be a moral coward. He might be physically robust and even brave ; but why is he frightened of questions?

The incident of lying about how Private X died is on the Must Be Forgotten list. It will never be referred to again by the Pentagon or any official agency, and nothing will ever be done about the dishonor in the command structure that permitted the lies to be told. That would not be in the patriotic style of “Support Our President and Our Military” as the Bush election slogan has it.

Even if the US Military tells flagrant, scandalous, five-star, large-pack, Olympic-style, award-winning damnable lies, there can be no criticism by any US media outlet that doesn’t want to lose every advertiser who pays for its existence.

There is not an editor in mainstream US media who would dare touch such a story of gross and explicit dishonor. Nor will anyone in Congress, because almost every member of that august body is terrified of appearing unpatriotic, which they would be accused of being if they demanded a proper investigation into this shameful episode of deliberate, stage-managed, official deceit.

There isn’t a hope of investigative journalism or Congressional inquiry. That’s the way things go in the US of Bush these days. Just like the Kama Ado incident. Ever heard of Kama Ado? It is (or was) a hamlet in Afghanistan that was completely destroyed by B-52 bombing which killed over 100 villagers in the process. And the Pentagon denies the atrocity ever happened.

Here’s the LA Times report : “Defense Department officials Saturday denied involvement in the casualties. ‘We’ve checked the imagery, and the closest airstrikes were 20 miles from Kama Ado,’ Defense Department spokesman Jim Turner said, referring to one village reportedly damaged in bomb strikes. It’s a false story’.”

You won’t find the true story anywhere in US mainstream media, but this is from Britain’s staunchly independent ‘Independent’, which doesn’t have to take orders from Big Media moguls or be blindly ‘patriotic’ : “[there were reports that] American B-52s had unloaded dozens of bombs that killed 115 men, women, and children in a village called Kama Ado. Then the Pentagon’s spokesman told the world : It just didn’t happen. He explained that the U.S. was meticulous in selecting only military targets associated with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network. These Alice-in-Wonderland denials prompted our man on the spot, Richard Lloyd Parry, to write the following: ‘So God knows what kind of a magic looking-glass I stepped through yesterday, as I traveled to Kama Ado. >From the moment I woke up, I was confronted with the wreckage and innocent victims of high-altitude, hi-tech, thousand-pound nothings’.” (See <> and type in Kama Ado Independent to read the full account that is published on many sites.)

“False Story”? The only thing false about the story was the Pentagon’s instant, deceitful denial. But nothing happened about this slaughter. The US media did not follow it up. Neither did the nation’s timid legislators. Nobody was disciplined for ordering the bombing strike that killed 115 villagers. But the message for the world is : the US military can kill with impunity.

It doesn’t matter to the Pentagon (or anyone in the Bush administration) that a hundred Afghan villagers were killed by B-52 bombs. Rumsfeld’s personally selected sycophants consider them to be only ragheads whose lives are worth nothing. It is not surprising that so much of the world detests the US of Bush. The ordinary people of Afghanistan don’t know any ordinary Americans (real people, that is, as distinct from Bill and Blondie Bubba), so can’t possibly relate to the feelings of those truly patriotic Americans who despair about what the Bush machine is doing in their name. They just hate and distrust all Americans, and now, by association, all westerners ; even those who are trying to help them.

What the Bush government should have done after its B-52s destroyed Kama Ado and slaughtered its inhabitants was to instantly and publicly apologize for the killings and pay what is called ‘blood money’ to survivors. The tribal elders (such as were left alive) would naturally prefer the execution of those who had murdered their people, but would settle for the usual cash alternative, which would have cost the Pentagon peanuts. This is a regional custom that is apparently unknown by the people who are making and carrying out US military policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The dedicated State Department professionals know all about this sort of thing, but they are regarded with official Pentagon contempt. Their advice is not sought; and, if offered, is ignored. The result is absolute loathing of America.

There are many hundreds of stories about military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan that have appeared in US newspapers courtesy of “senior officials who wish to remain anonymous”. Of course they want to remain anonymous. The Borgias sought anonymity when they spread poison, too. And reporters and editors scoop it all up and tell us all about it. (Gary Trudeau’s Roland Hedley lives ; but he has help from editors.) There was a splendid headline last week in a British tabloid about Bush going to the Vatican : “Pope Meets Dope”. But so far as the US media’s reporting about Iraq and Afghanistan is concerned, a similarly slick headline might be : “Dope Deceives Dupes”.

Remember the Jessica Lynch affair? The Pentagon system lied from beginning to end about that one, too. On April 3 last year the Washington Post dupes’ headline was “She Was Fighting to the Death”. The report, a Front Page item, no less, was based on the usual scurvy “unnamed military sources” and retailed the fantasy that Lynch “continued firing at the Iraqis even after she sustained multiple gunshot wounds,” and the fatuous claim that she was stabbed by Iraqi soldiers while she was helpless following the attack on the convoy in which she was traveling. On April 2 Associated Press carried a report quoting “officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity” who declared that she suffered “at least one gunshot wound”. The New York Times quoted “an Army official” who stated that Lynch had been shot “multiple times”. Garbage. The whole lot of it was hogwash. Reporters were being told deliberate lies by these people.

What has happened to integrity and honesty in the military? After all, even Rumsfeld’s civilian mind-benders in the Pentagon couldn’t have made it all up by themselves. Here is an extract from a CNN interview with Jessica Lynch on November 6 last year. “[She said] ‘I did not shoot ; not a round, nothing. I went down praying to my knees ; that’s the last thing I remember.’ Initial reports also suggested that Miss Lynch had been abused after she came round in the hospital. She says that again was untrue ; there was no mistreatment, ‘no one beat me, no one slapped me, no one, nothing . . . [I] mean, I actually had one nurse, that she would sing to me.’ She said she was grateful to the American special forces team which rescued her but, asked whether the Pentagon’s subsequent portrayal of her rescue bothered her, she said: ‘Yes, it does. They used me as a way to symbolize all this stuff. It’s wrong’.” But what about the Pentagon’s phrases “Fighting to the death” and “She did not want to be taken alive”.

Just who invented these emotional phrases? Who told the lies? Who ordered the lies to be told? Who, finally, is responsible for the lies having been told? Why did the US Army permit these lies to be told? Remember the West Point code of honor is not just that there is zero tolerance for those who “lie, cheat or steal” but that officers must not “tolerate those who do”.

OK, so Roland Hedley might thrive and have his being in Bubba-land, and there are some journalist dummies, like Judith Miller of the New York Times, who believe everything they are told by “an Army official” and other nebulous characters. They are to be more pitied than criticized, but it is not unreasonable to expect to be given all the news that’s fit to print by realistic reporters and hands-on editors.

Finding and reporting information in Iraq is difficult, however, given the aggressive attitude of the US military to western correspondents. Here is an excerpt from a piece on June 7 by reporter Christopher Albritton, trying to convey the events of the day near the scene of an explosion : “. . . where was the attack?” I pressed. ‘I said go away,’ he [the US soldier] growled. “Can I speak to your commanding officer? Where is he?” ‘He said get the fuck out of here!’, a second soldier screamed, and both soldiers pointed their weapons at me. There are few things more threatening than seeing scared and pissed-off American soldiers pointing weapons at you. I quickly retreated and returned to the car, shaken by the Americans’ hostility . . .”

OK ; so the soldiers were scared. But pointing their loaded weapons at a person who obviously presented no threat to them is indicative of a breakdown in discipline. There is no need whatever to point a loaded weapon at an unarmed reporter, even if he is asking to speak with your commanding officer. The worrying thing is that this attitude is condoned by those in higher authority. Soldiers don’t publicly menace unarmed civilians unless they are certain they can do that without fear of reprimand.

The main reason the US of Bush has failed in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the aggressive attitude of its troops has totally alienated even those who would have been its friends. The smash, crash, bash routine of ill-disciplined, thieving, gung-ho troops when searching houses has created countless resistance fighters whose families have been beaten and humiliated. The lies told at all levels by representatives of the Pentagon have emphasized the conviction round the world that Bush Washington cannot be trusted.

The US Military is in crisis, from top to bottom. But the responsibility lies entirely at the top. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Feith must go. Only then can the cleansing begin.

BRIAN CLOUGHLEY writes on military and political affairs. He can be reached through his website

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.