Friday, August 29, 2014

The 'Hot' War in Cold War Southeast Asia

This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 3 July 2014.

The popular understanding of wars past is an important determining factor how wars in the future will be received or perceived by the general public. Policymakers have come to understand this and turn it to their advantage. Equating an intervention with upholding democracy plays well when compared with WWI, when the world was “made safe for democracy”. Interventions involving the liberation of oppressed masses or a gathering existential threat are compared with WWII. Opponents of interventions latch on to these comparisons as well, equating them with quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq. As time goes on, the general memory and popular factual understanding of these wars weakens despite more historical and archival evidence presenting a truer picture being opened by governments or discovered by academics. Despite having ended only 25 years ago, the Cold War presents such a case.

The Cold War was not one war fought in one place, but several wars fought in different theatres in different ways. The most familiar narrative of the Cold War focuses on the struggle in Europe between the United States and the Soviet Union. The American view of the Indochina Wars was that they were but another theatre in the war against international communism—the Global Cold War. For the French and Southeast Asians, it was a different battle. The French fought to preserve a dying colonial system; Southeast Asians, for national liberation and/or a new system based on communist principles.

The Cold War in Southeast Asia bore little resemblance to the Cold War in the West. The Southeast Asian Cold War was not “cold” at all…

The Cold War in Southeast Asia bore little resemblance to the Cold War in the West. The Southeast Asian Cold War was not ‘cold’ at all and, rather than a state-centric battle fought with nuclear threats, espionage and military-industrial production across clearly drawn map lines, the Indochina Wars were ‘hot’ wars featuring weak central governments with soft borders, the main driver of which was to capture the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people of Southeast Asia, who largely determined the course of the wars.
The Western Cold War
The Cold War in the West was a battle between states in two clear blocs along clear national borders. The map-lines of Cold War Europe were drawn at the 1945 Yalta and Potsdam Conferences. The “Iron Curtain” fell along the Oder-Neisse Line, running from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Czech border in the south, then traced southwards to the Mediterranean through Austria and Italy, divided in half between joint occupations. Control of defeated Germany and its capital, Berlin, was also split between the US, UK, France and the USSR. Following 1948 elections, Italy joined NATO as a full member of the West bloc. In 1955 Austria became a neutral state and occupation troops withdrew. Otherwise, national borders and lines between East and West in Cold War Europe remained largely unchanged for 45 years until German re-unification and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta, 1945.
Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin at Yalta, 1945.
The Cold War was an ‘imaginary war’ in which the two sides threatened each other with annihilation, but no direct military battles were fought. The deterrent effect of nuclear weapons and collective security guarantees of NATO and the Warsaw Pact made the cost of war in Europe too high. The sides confronted one another along their border. Many such scenes played in Berlin, including the 1948 Blockade and Airlift and the 1961 confrontation at Checkpoint Charlie. The two sides also tried to out-produce one another, engaging in a statistical battle in which agricultural, industrial and military production were weapons. They engaged in an arms race to produce and field more and better nuclear weapons in different forms and faster than the other. The only fighting in any real sense was between intelligence services in a “shadow war of espionage, counter-espionage and covert actions. The armies were the security and intelligence agencies of West and East, the CIA and the KGB, and the multitude of other forces lined up on one or the other side. In the war that could never become a real war…”
The Western Cold War was a state-centric conflict prosecuted through nuclear posturing, national military-industrial production and covert intelligence operations fought across tightly-controlled national borders. It is telling that many of the most intense military confrontations of the European Cold War–and much espionage activity–hinged on the ‘German question’ and the fate of a single city, Berlin, issues not finally resolved until the fall of the Wall and the collapse of European communism.
The ideological battle to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of Europeans was an important component, but the “center of gravity” in the European conflict–to use Karl von Clausewitz’s phrase–was the governments of the states involved. Governments and their security apparatuses could control the behavior of their citizens. Though the threat of nuclear war hung over their heads, the fighting was not real in its literal sense. Which side the average European fell on depended on where they lived, determined for them by the Big Three at conference tables in Yalta and Potsdam.
The Cold War in Southeast Asia
Pandora’s Box
Pham Van Dong & Ho Chi Minh, 1966.
Pham Van Dong & Ho Chi Minh, 1966.
In contrast to the West, the Southeast Asian Cold War, rather than ushering in the beginning of a new struggle, was the continuation of a struggle which had begun for some, such as Ho Chi Minh, as early as the 1920s. The struggle for Indochina predated the Cold War. The Japanese invasion in 1941 and return of the French in 1945 “opened Pandora’s box”, creating the opportunity to fight return of French rule to Indochina—something Southeast Asians may not have pursued nor achieved without the break in French control created by the war. The post-WWII period for Indochinese marked the resumption of two intertwined battles—that of liberation from French colonial rule and between communist and anti-communist forces to determine which system would govern independent Indochina.
Hot War
Arguably, the Cold War in Asia was not ‘cold’ at all. Unlike in Europe, where opposing forces stared each other down across borders but never fired a shot, the Southeast Asian Cold War was ‘hot’. Real armed battles were fought between colonial and nationalist and communist and anti-communist forces almost from the very beginning. During the First Indochina War, there would also be violent ethnic, religious and factional fighting among differentIndochinese populations alongside the battle for independence. Over two decades, troops would invade, occupy and fight in, to varying degrees, all of the Indochinese states in the First and Second Indochina War, resulting in hundreds of thousands of total casualties—something unthinkable in Cold War Europe.
Soft Borders
The battle in Southeast Asia was not between governments behind clearly drawn borders on either side of a clear line of demarcation between democracy and communism. Borders mattered little in the Southeast Asian Cold War. There was no Oder-Neisse Line in Indochina. The 1954 17th parallel border between North and South Vietnam came to matter very little due to communist infiltration and American bombing.

In Southeast Asia, Western governments were unwilling to commit fully to total war and unwilling or unable to take, occupy and hold territory they had won.

Under French rule, the states of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos had all been one large colony–Indochina. There had always been interchange between these regions-cum-states, each with significant diaspora in the others. Many national leaders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos would be born or spend significant time in neighboring states. Close lingual, religious, cultural and ethnic relations facilitated ‘softer’ borders.
Much of the fighting during the Second Indochina War took place in South Vietnam and spilled over the border into Cambodia and Laos. Communist and anti-communist forces throughout Southeast Asia cooperated with kindred factions and used each other’s territories to transit through or as a sanctuary from their own fight across the border. The famous Ho Chi Minh and King Sihanouk Trails used by communist forces to transit the borders of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are examples. Governments in distant Saigon, Phnom Penh or Vientiane could do little to control their frontiers. The porous nature of these borders has been blamed specifically for “enlarging” the Second Indochina War beyond Vietnam.
Weak Eastern Governments and Lack of Western Will
French propaganda poster following defeat at Dien Bien Phu, 1954.
French propaganda poster following defeat at Dien Bien Phu, 1954.
Governments had far less power in Southeast Asia than their counterparts in Europe. Throughout most of the Cold War, Southeast Asian states had two or more governments which claimed rule. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia experienced periods in which territory in each was controlled by opposing governments, dividing the country, each claiming to hold legitimate power over the whole.
The sides hurled propaganda. South Vietnam was called a puppet of the United States, while North Vietnam was a creature of Beijing. The governments of Cambodia and Laos claimed neutrality, but received aid from all sides in a constant tug of war between North Vietnam, America, Russia and China. There was no grand post-WWII modernization and development plan like the Marshall Plan for Europe. Efforts to form effective Asian collective security regimes, such as SEATO, were stymied by the Geneva Accords requirement Indochinese states remain neutral.
Government heads did not stay in power long and there were constant overthrow attempts by both communist and anti-communist forces. There were multiple mutiny or coup attempts from 1960 against Ngo Dinh Diem in the lead up to his 1963 assassination, a trend which continued with his successors until 1966. Loyalties also shifted. King Sihanouk of Cambodia was seemingly onevery side of the struggle in Cambodia at one time or another—monarchist, republican, anti-communist and finally with the Khmer Rouge communists.

Ngo Dinh Diem, 1955
In previous modern wars such as WWI and WWII, large-scale troop deployments and naval, air, armor and artillery support were central features and the war was prosecuted largely by one army defeating the enemy militarily and advancing to occupy ever more territory until the state leadership was destroyed or it capitulated. Capitols, major population centers and industrial areas were particular targets of bombing campaigns. It was total war. Both world wars ended when belligerent governments surrendered. Their troops stopped fighting and normal life returned.
In Southeast Asia, Western governments were unwilling to commit fully to total war and unwilling or unable to take, occupy and hold territory they had won. French commanders decided, rather than occupy Indochina with enough troops to guarantee security, they would pursue a “hedgehog” strategy of fighting the war through forays into enemy territory from a series of heavily fortified encampments, leading to their encirclement and 1954 surrender at Dien Bien Phu. The US, having just fought an unpopular war in Korea, was unwilling to commit to another war in Asia. Eisenhower did not want America to be seen as supporting French imperialism in Indochina and would not act without diplomatic support from Britain and Australia.
There was no line of advance as there had been during WWII, behind which the war was over and civilians viewed themselves as ‘liberated’. Conversely, Southeast Asians saw the Westerners, especially the French, as ‘occupiers’. Communist forces, in territory and a culture much more home to them than their white counterparts, returned wherever they left. The moment Western troops left an area, they lost control of it. They controlled Vietnam only “100 yards on either side of all major roads”. Though America used its fire support assets to great effect and multiplied the effectiveness of its troops, the enemy did not abate for it.
Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, 1963.
Gen. Maxwell Taylor, Robert McNamara, John F. Kennedy, 1963.
The U.S. government policy, championed by Robert McNamara, of relying on “body counts” and statistics as metrics to determine victory led America tolose focus on other factors. Despite the focus on killing the enemy, America often refrained from bombing North Vietnamese government targets in the capital, Hanoi, as a tactic to keep them at the negotiating table while using B-52’s to carpet bomb entire swathes elsewhere in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This angered civilians and turned them into refugees, fleeing into the arms of communists—particularly benefiting the Khmer Rouge. The French and American governments sought to end their wars in Southeast Asia as soon as they began and both eventually pursued negotiated settlements. They did not win the wars.
Those Who Forget History…
The popular conception of past wars and what, where, how, who and why they were conducted is often incomplete and the accuracy of the picture fades over time despite the clearer image produced by years of academic study after the fact. The Cold War is a perfect example, with the story of the Western or European Cold War the dominant narrative over what was a “hot war” in Southeast Asia. Since the dominant narratives or popular conception of wars past determines how wars are perceived in the future, it becomes all the more important to look deeper into even recent history for an accurate picture of events. Why? As ever—those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Warrior Culture: Ditch ‘Redskins’, but Keep Apache

This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 30 June 2014.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office have cancelled the trademark registration of the Washington Redskins football team, convinced the team’s logo and name is an offensive racial slur against Native Americans. It is an offensive name, more so than any other sports mascot with an ethnic connection. The decision followed a widespread public campaign and letters from 50 U.S. Senators urging a name change. Following the ruling, some, such as Simon Waxman, claim the effort needs to go further. He claims the U.S. military is guilty of the same racist conduct in using Native American tribal names and the names of Native leaders for equipment and operations. Is there a difference between the Washington Redskins and an AH-64 Apache attack helicopter?

Waxman claims that the use by the U.S. military of the tribal names such as Kiowa and Chinook, weapons such as the tomahawk, or names such as Grey Eagle and Geronimo are offensive. His evidence is the systematic U.S. campaign of “manifest destiny” which saw America expand its way across the whole of the continent, crushing Native tribes in the process.

It is true. The United States fought, tricked, cajoled, murdered and coerced Native tribes into moving off their own land and the U.S. military was the tool most often used to achieve it. By the turn of the 20th century, Native tribes had all but vanished from America. According to Waxman, the campaign was racist and it is therefore racially offensive for the military to use Native terms.

The U.S. military does honor Native American tribes for their warrior culture and fighting spirit because it is worthy of respect and honor and the American military requires and fosters a similar warrior culture.
However, there is no such thing as a “Redskin” helicopter or a “Native Savage” cruise missile. The military does have Kiowa helicopters and Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Kiowa were a real tribe and the tomahawk was a real weapon and Geronimo and Grey Eagle were real Native leaders. There is no racist connotation in the use of the names themselves. Waxman’s assertion is that since the U.S. military crushed Native tribes it is racist for the military to use terms associated with peoples it defeated. Waxman compares it, citing Noam Chomsky, with the hypothetical situation if the Nazi’s would have called their tanks or fighters “Jew” or “Gypsy”.

So why is it different? The U.S. military almost always uses themed names for different series’ of equipment. Aircraft carriers are named after U.S. Presidents or other leaders. Battleships were named after U.S. states. Submarines are often named after aquatic animals. Fighter jets are christened with birds of prey. Armored vehicles are named after Generals. The military does this to impart an association to that system of characteristics of its namesake and to honor them, not to disparage a vanquished foe. The association helps to build esprit de corps among those who are stationed on, maintain, use or operate the system.

How can it be that the U.S. military named its helicopters after Native tribes for racist motivations, but named its aircraft carriers after Presidents and Senators out of respect and to honor them? Was it racist against the British to commission the USS George Washington? How about the Sherman tank against white Southerners? If military equipment is named after vanquished foes, why don’t we have a “King George III” submarine, a “Nazi” landing craft, or “Hammer and Sickle” tanks. Waxman would surely argue that it is cynical to believe that the U.S. military, which spent decades hunting the Natives in the Southwest, would honor the same tribes today. That is because Waxman—who never served in the military—like many other people does not understand the concept of warrior culture.

Most Native American tribes had some form of warrior culture. They trained their young men not only to peacefully hunt animals and gather berries in the woods, as naïve and unbalanced narratives picture them, but to fight against neighboring bands, sometimes from the same tribe. They developed and conducted religious rituals in preparation and upon return from war. For many Native tribes, war was a way of life. They were not just the wide-eyed peaceful daisies waiting to be plucked as many postmodernist thinkers—like Noam Chomsky—portray them as. They were proud warriors, not just victims.

They believed there was no greater feat than to meet and defeat a foe in battle and no greater honor than to die in battle one’s self. When white settlers moved into their territory, they conducted raids upon them. It was on their land and therefore fair game. They knew violence would be met with violence. That was life. However, the tribes did not have the technological ability or the population to defeat a European foe which had systematic designs on making the entire continent their own. Despite the overwhelming odds against them, they resisted the white man for decades. The Comanche stopped the northern advance of Spain from Mexico, the westward advance of France out of Louisiana, and the advances of both Texas and the United States as well. Not a bad return for a people forced to live in the Llano Estacado, a desert corner of west Texas which even today is barren land. The warrior culture and fighting spirit of Native Americans is indeed worthy of respect.
Ask an American soldier today if they consider Native Americans defeated enemies of the country or if they consider them warriors worthy of respect. They will answer with respect, hands down.
The United States military has a warrior culture of its own. American troops believe that, as George Orwell says, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Today less than 1% of America serves in the all-volunteer military and they come home to a country that does not understand them when they do. American veterans turn to one another for support. It reinforces a warrior culture. No one pays the costs of war more than the soldier. They understand that the world is a real and dangerous place where there are other people who want to see America fail and to harm and kill Americans. It is not something that just happens to someone else on TV. It is because of America’s warriors and their warrior culture that people such as Waxman and Chomsky never have to see or experience this first-hand. America’s warriors keep the wolf from the door.

So, yes, the U.S. military does honor Native American tribes for their warrior culture and fighting spirit because it is worthy of respect and honor and the American military requires and fosters a similar warrior culture. But those who do not understand warrior culture or violence and reject it in all of its forms would not understand such a feeling. They would have to believe that is just cynical, racist mocking to name a weapons system a Tomahawk, or a deadly attack helicopter an Apache, or a drone Grey Eagle. Ask an American soldier today if they consider Native Americans defeated enemies of the country or if they consider them warriors worthy of respect. They will answer with respect, hands down.

Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder has attempted to justify the racist name of his team by using a similar argument. He argues that the Redskins moniker is a “badge of honor” and its use is meant to impart to his football team the fierce warrior fighting spirit associated with Native tribes. So what’s the difference?

It may come as a shock to some, but football is just a game. No one dies. Nothing tangible for the country rides upon victory or loss by one side or the other. While players are skilful and do risk injury, they also get paid ridiculous sums of money and receive excellent health care. Real soldiers are lucky to receive either. Many professional athletes act more like prima donnas than warriors. The tired old metaphors that equate sports with combat should be retired. They are offensive to those who really do fight. Many professional and amateur athletes themselves recognize that. There is no real warrior culture in football. It is just a game. Dan Snyder should not equate his team’s racist mascot with honor. Retire the “Redskins”.

On the other hand, Simon Waxman and likeminded individuals should suspend their disbelief that the U.S. military can in fact honor Native Americans and that it is not just cynical racism. It is clear to see why they have made the mistake and misunderstand the difference. It is an alien concept to them. The U.S government, the U.S. military and the American people of the time all took part in an act of genocide against Native Americans. That is a fact. That cannot be undone. However, no one alive today took part in those actions. The people who named these weapons systems after Native Americans did not have it in mind as a cynical ‘endzone dance’ against a defeated opponent when they did so.

The U.S. military chose to adopt Native American terms for these weapons and platforms in order to honor the warrior culture associated with them, to build esprit de corps among those servicemembers associated with them, and because the U.S. military has a proud warrior culture of its own. That is not racist. Get rid of the Washington “Redskins”, but keep the AH-64 Apache.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Will U.S. Military Advisors Face ‘Mission Creep’ in Iraq?

This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 23 June 2014.

President Obama announced as many as 300 U.S. military advisers may be deployed to Iraq to assist the government in fighting the Sunni extremist group ISIS, which has invaded areas of western Iraq. The White House is also considering airstrikes. In 2012 President Obama withdrew the last U.S. troops from Iraq, keeping a campaign pledge to end the American presence there. The President has promised that “American forces will not be returning to combat in Iraq” and that military advisers will only be there to assist Iraqi forces to repel the ISIS invaders. But some have called this misleading and pointed out that U.S. military advisors certainly have engaged in combat in the past and will again if sent back to Iraq. But would the deployment of U.S. military advisers mean U.S. troops will be engaged in combat in Iraq again?

I served as a U.S. military adviser while attached to a Military Transition Team (MiTT) in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Our job was to provide for our assigned Iraqi infantry battalion what they did not have themselves–namely medical evacuation capability (MEDEVAC), air and artillery support, and certain forms of intelligence. We also facilitated training in administration, logistics, equipment and weapons maintenance, electronic communications, and operational and tactical strategy—all the skills of professional soldiers. We acted as liaison between our Iraqi battalion and its sister U.S. battalion responsible for the same sector. We also evaluated and reported on the readiness of the Iraqi unit to function autonomously. We were certainly engaged in combat, accompanying Iraqi units on patrols and cordon and search operations. Several U.S. members of our unit were killed and seriously injured in combat operations, along with scores of Iraqi soldiers.

Throughout WWII, U.S. military adviser General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell and his staff provided high-level military assistance to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and commanded Chinese and Western troops as Chiang’s Chief of Staff. Though their role was originally envisioned to be purely advisory in nature, the United States pushed for Stilwell to be placed in charge of all allied forces in the Chinese theatre, something Chiang resisted until the last. Stilwell and his staff had to fight their way out of Burma following Chinese defeat at the hands of the Japanese in 1941, and Stilwell spent the rest of his time in China fighting with Chiang rather than the Japanese.
The re-deployment of U.S. military advisors to Iraq will not automatically mean putting American troops back into combat. But it could.
Perhaps the clearest example of U.S. military advisors becoming engaged in combat comes from Vietnam. Following the 1945 Japanese surrender, France attempted to regain control of its pre-war colony, Indochina. They returned to strong nationalist and communist resistance in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos which they lacked the understanding or will to fight. A small contingent of U.S. advisers were first dispatched to Indochina in 1950 to support the French military, still recovering from WWII and desperately trying to fight the communist insurgency with antiquated equipment. The U.S. mission was to train French forces on new military equipment the U.S. had supplied them to aid France in its fight against the communists.

After the final French defeat of the First Indochina War at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the U.S. began to directly advise the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem in its fight against communist North Vietnam and their indigenous Viet Cong allies. From 1955 to 1960, the U.S. mission grew to as many as 1,500 military advisors. As the Viet Cong insurgency grew in the South, the number of U.S. military advisors grew exponentially, with over 16,000 U.S. military advisors in South Vietnam by 1963. In an extreme example of ‘mission creep’, the soldiers of the Military Assistance Advisory Group-Vietnam (MAAG-V) and the Military Assistance Command-Vietnam (MAC-V) from 1950 to 1973 moved from a small advisory role to an allied Western military to an open combat role in a grinding Cold War counterinsurgency. They did much more than engage in ‘self-defence’, as once claimed by the Kennedy administration.

Not all U.S. military advisory missions have led to U.S. troops engaging in combat, however. Following WWII, U.S. military advisors assisted in the rebuilding of Germany, the implementation of the Marshall Plan in Europe, and reconstruction efforts in Japan, China and Korea. Throughout the Cold War, U.S. military advisers trained South American military forces to stabilise their governments against communist rebels during Foreign Internal Defense (FID) missions. More recently, the United States has increased its military advisory presence in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. U.S. military advisers have trained troops and advised governments in Nigeria, South Sudan, Chad, Congo, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Yemen and the Philippines, among others, in recent years. Civilian civil servants with the U.S. Department of Defense also engage in military advisory missions through programs such as the Ministry of Defense Advisors Program (MoDA). The U.S. has frequently deployed civilian and military defence advisors during peacetime to assist allies through structures such as NATO in Europe and the defunct Cold War-era SEATO in Asia. The re-deployment of U.S. military advisors to Iraq will not automatically mean putting American troops back into combat.

But it could. U.S. Special Operations Forces, especially U.S. Army Green Berets, were originally conceived with the intent of training and organising indigenous troops to become a competent and coherent fighting force to engage in unconventional warfare or to train allied government troops in Foreign Internal Defence or counter-insurgency missions. Building an effective fighting force can hardly be done solely in a theoretical, classroom environment, and even field training under simulated fighting conditions is no substitute for real combat. Special Operations Forces often provide theoretical instruction, followed by field training, and progressing into leading, advising and evaluating performance in combat operations when necessary. If U.S. military advisers are deployed to Iraq, they will likely be Special Operations Forces who possess language and cultural skills and years of previous experience on the ground in Iraq. Anonymous U.S. officials have said the Pentagon would ask for U.S. Special Operations Forces to be on the ground in order to support advisory and intelligence operations there.

The U.S. has already invested billions of dollars, scores of American lives, and six years into training and equipping Iraqi government troops. That is more years of U.S. military training and experience than I had when I first deployed to Iraq myself in 2003. The Iraqi military has been engaged in a counterinsurgency battle on their home turf for years so are not novices to combat. They have already been trained by U.S. advisors. Difficulties in agreeing to an acceptable SOFA agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are the reason there has been no U.S. military advisory presence in Iraq since 2012. Now al-Maliki and the Iraqi government want U.S. forces to return.

There is a historical danger a renewed U.S. military advisory mission in Iraq could “creep” from helping Iraq to help itself into doing it for them. The U.S. may launch airstrikes against ISIS forces—something President Obama has announced he is considering—but they could not do so effectively without trained American controllers on the front lines, which would necessarily place them ‘in combat’—something the President has promised not to do. During the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, President Obama promised there would be no U.S. presence on the ground and that the U.S. would take a backseat to its European allies. Behind the scenes, paramilitary forces from U.S. intelligence were indeed on the ground in Libya and the U.S. military played a much larger role than was publicly acknowledged.

JCS Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, once in overall charge of the American effort to train police and military forces in Iraq, warned that the U.S. does not have the intelligence capability to effectively lead and target airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq. The Iraqi army was not trained or equipped with communications equipment which would enable them to effectively guide U.S. airstrikes. The U.S. was rightly hesitant to train and equip a foreign military with that capability. Arguably only U.S. boots on the ground—filled by troops trained in combat air control—could make the difference.

In sum, U.S. military advisors have historically been deployed in both combat and non-combat roles. While there is a precedent, it does not necessarily follow that the re-deployment of U.S. military advisors to Iraq will lead to “mission creep” or putting American troops into combat there again. For the option of U.S. airstrikes being employed against ISIS in Iraq to be effective, however, U.S. controllers would most likely have to be on the ground at the front lines. So how does one definitively determine if U.S. troops are “in combat”? This is probably the question that is easiest answer. Forget what the President, Congress, the lawyers, the experts or the media say on the issue. To quote one of Murphy’s Laws: “If you are being shot at, you are in combat.”

Monday, August 4, 2014

Two Views of Intelligence

This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 19 June 2014.

The purpose of intelligence is to speak truth to power. Intelligence agencies exist to provide decision-makers with absolute, unbiased facts or, failing to obtain absolute facts, to provide as clear, unbiased and true a picture of a situation as possible using what facts are available to enable decision-makers to reach informed conclusions as to what course of action to take. Rarely is it the case that Intelligence can present a picture of a situation that is purely fact-based. There are common intelligence requirements, such as determining the intent of another party, which can never be known for certain because their very nature prevents certain, permanent determination. ‘Gaps’ in fact while attempting to form as clear, accurate and true a picture of a situation as possible can only be filled with conjecture or informed ‘guesswork’ based upon past actions, history, logic and/or statistical probability. Informed ‘guesswork’ is what intelligence analysts do.

One of the central arguments in the field of intelligence analysis regards which angle estimative or predictive strategic intelligence analysis should be approached. Two schools of thought have emerged: Straussians, based around University of Chicago political scientist Leo Strauss, and Kentians, around Sherman Kent, founding father of CIA’s estimative process.

Values or Truths?

The Straussian view of analysis is founded on the idea that the ‘regime’—specifically the form of government and society a state adopts—provides a window through which the political thought, intentions and actions of a state can be observed and predicted. It assumes there is a continual human search for which form of regime is ‘best’ and a qualitative analysis of the differences between these different forms is the route to determining which regime is ideal. For example, Strauss believed during the Cold War that the essential qualitative differences between American democracy and Soviet communism was the most important issue of the day.

At first read, there appears to be nothing controversial about that idea. However, the Straussian view requires that the judgment of the quality of a regime be based upon how well it provides public goods such as liberty, freedom, justice and so forth. This invites what can be called a ‘values’-based judgment into the process using determinants which are subjective in nature. This conflicts with the objective focus of mainstream notions of the social scientific approach which focusses on facts over values judgments and pictures measureable differences between regimes as a matter of different degrees of focus in pursuit of universal human pursuits.

The Kentian view of analysis is based firmly in the belief that intelligence analysis should be approached as an intellectual subject in the liberal social science tradition. Analysts were certainly not to make values judgments, but rather search for the underlying universal ‘truths’ common to man. Kent, a Yale historian, shied away from establishing or applying theoretical analysis based in international relations to intelligence, preferring instead more practical empirical frameworks and methods. He held that the intellectual and emotional detachment of his analysts allowed them to produce better estimates than military analysts or policymakers and their staffs because they focused on academic ‘truth’ as their goal without an attached or vested interest in their particular ‘regime’. Kent’s belief in the value of this objective analytical system was such that he held it to be more valuable than clandestine intelligence collection. No number of microphones or satellite photos could substitute for the value of being able to objectively divine the meaning of long-term trends in order to accurately estimate future actions.

While Kentian objective analysis can lead analysts down blind alleys due to strategic deception, Straussian analysis can lead one to look at regimes such as the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in light of worst-case scenarios because of their (supposed) diametrical opposition to the U.S. regime.

Kent created a system for intelligence analysis with the goal of creating ‘institutional memory’ so knowledge would become cumulative and not be lost between generations. While building CIA’s analysis structures Kent was very much committed to the professionalization of intelligence analysis. Besides its academic commitment to neutrality, the Kentian view was also shaped by organisational factors. The positioning of CIA’s early estimative body between the military and political leaders required it to maintain a reputation for objectivity so as not to become a target for either. Kent held up the CIA’s performance in more accurately estimating Soviet capabilities during the Bomber and Missile Gaps of the late 1950s compared with military intelligence estimates as an example of its detached view of analysis discouraging it from inflating estimates to support its own organisational goals. The Air Force was accused of inflating Soviet bomber and ICBM estimates in order to justify an ever greater share of the defence budget going to its SAC and U.S. ICBM programmes.

Leo Strauss never worked, studied or wrote about intelligence analysis. He was a political scientist. However, as Gary Schmitt and Abram Schulsky argue, Strauss’ work on political analysis can be related to intelligence analysis. Strauss argued that political and social sciences could never be true or ‘hard’ sciences because of ‘deception’. Atoms and particles do not attempt to hide, conceal or deceive their observers. Human beings can and do. Strategic deception should always be a consideration in intelligence analysis, especially when dealing with a foe aware of interest in their activity and have counterintelligence capability.

Hall of Mirrors

When applying a detached, academic analysis to a problem, how can one account for strategic deception by the enemy? The annals of intelligence are filled with tales of strategic deception. Prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Japanese diplomats continued to conduct negotiations, not allowing U.S. analysts to narrow the field of Japanese intentions. Operation Mincemeat saw the body of an RAF officer carrying fake plans released into Spanish waters by submarine and successfully duped German intelligence into believing the allies would invade Greece rather than Sicily. Operation Bodyguard supported the pre-conceived German view that D-Day would come at Calais, not Normandy.

Some deception debates still continue today. Col. Oleg Penkovsky, a GRU military intelligence officer, was the highest ranking source the West had in Moscow during the Cold War. The intelligence he provided on Soviet nuclear capabilities is claimed to have directly influenced President Kennedy’s actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, he was compromised, arrested, put on show trial and apparently executed. Questions remain. Penkovsky’s job did not give him access to the material he provided, so how did he get it? At what point was he compromised and how? Was he executed as a spy or was it a Soviet deception operation from the beginning?

Strangely, after his execution the CIA went to unprecedented lengths to get Penkovsky’s story out, granting full access to the authors of the generously-named The Spy Who Saved the World. Was it to exploit the psychological effect of such a high-ranking source against the USSR? Or was it to cover up the fact they had been comprehensively duped themselves? All this to say that strategic deception is a vital consideration in intelligence analysis and part of James Jesus Angleton’s ‘hall of mirrors’. Is this what they are doing? Or is it what they want me to think they are doing?

While Kentian objective analysis can lead analysts down blind alleys due to strategic deception, Straussian analysis has led in some equally undesirable directions. The values-based judgment Straussian analysis invites can lead one to look at regimes such as the Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in light of worst-case scenarios because of their (supposed) almost diametrical opposition to the U.S. regime. Those who place primacy on a qualitative analysis of regimes and their ideology and view another regime as possessing an opposing ideology come to view that foe as a major threat where an objective analysis of the same regime considering its past actions, current posture and capability might see the same foe as posing only a minor threat.

From Cuba to Iraq

In 1976, President Ford approved an exercise in competitive analysis, pitting a junior team of CIA analysts applying standard Kentian methods against an external team applying Straussian methods to an analysis of Soviet nuclear capabilities. The episode has come to be known as ‘Team B’. Team B accused CIA of ‘mirror imaging’—assuming the foe holds the same universal principles and goals as the analyst does. Its analysis focused on Soviet intentions, ideas, aspirations and motivations rather than capabilities. It drew conclusions as to intentions based upon an assumption that the Soviet regime not only wanted to defeat the U.S. militarily, but destroy its regime politically, socially and economically. Team B began its analysis from that anchor point and used data to reinforce the assumption as opposed to drawing conclusions from data.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Team B’s analysis of Soviet capabilities was conclusively proven to be flawed. As an example of how far off path such methods can lead, Team B cited the lack of proof that the Soviet Union had developed an advanced submarine detection system as proof that it did in fact have it. They found it hard to believe the Soviets had not yet done so, so assumed that they had. The continued application of this kind of thinking is exhibited by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s 2002 statement on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction that ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’

However, Kentian analysis has also failed at times, most famously in failing in successive National Intelligence Estimates, utilising the entirety of America’s intelligence machinery, to predict the placement of Soviet nuclear missiles on Cuba, leading to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In 1964, Sherman Kent authored his own well-written post-mortem of how it came to pass, since becoming a classic of intelligence literature. He writes that one of the hazards of the profession of intelligence analysis is filling in gaps in fact with informed guesswork. These gaps are filled with conjecture based upon past actions. That Khrushchev would place missiles on Cuba exhibited a different posture from any of his past actions. Khrushchev ‘zigged’ when they expected him to ‘zag’. Kent goes so far as to say CIA got the estimates wrong because Khrushchev had made such a poor decision that it caught them by surprise.

Returning to the Straussian argument about the Kentian susceptibility to strategic deception, Khrushchev clearly intended to surprise the United States with nuclear missile placements on Cuba and to use them as a bargaining chip against President Kennedy. By suddenly changing posture in a way out of character for Soviet leadership, the Soviet Union was able to fool CIA analysts. Applying Straussian thinking to the situation may have led analysts to assume the USSR would attempt to place missiles on Cuba at some point because of its strategic intent to destroy the United States and look for data to support the assumption. U.S. imagery intelligence did discover missile placements on Cuba, but only because DCI John McCone had suspicions about Khrushchev’s intentions and told them to keep watch over Cuba despite Sherman Kent’s estimates. If estimators began with the assumption Khrushchev would try, they may have been discovered earlier.

This argument about which method of analysis is best suited to producing strategic intelligence estimates has gone on since the beginning of the U.S. Intelligence Community. As episodes from WWII through the Cold War to the Iraq War show, there is no sign of it being decided any time soon. The purpose of intelligence is to speak the truth to power, but the job of analysts is to determine what the ‘truth’ will be before it happens. Whether thinking like Sherman Kent or Leo Strauss, attempting to peer into the future while surrounded by the hall of mirrors is a task anyone is bound to fail at from time to time.

Monday, July 28, 2014

The U.S.-Chinese War Over Africa

This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 9 June 2014.

American and Chinese efforts in Africa can be characterized by two contrasting outlooks. The United States focuses on security, the Chinese on economic investment. Contrary to Howard French’s claims in his new book, China’s Second Continent, that Chinese settlers constitute “the beginnings of a new empire,” Beijing’s relationship with the continent is more nuanced than that – China is a burgeoning world power in desperate need of resources and profits. Unlike its European predecessors, Beijing has no interest in re-imagining colonies in its own image. Yet, its attention toward the continent may foretell a larger strategic competition between the United States and China. Whereas the Chinese look at Africa and sees dollar signs, Americans look at the continent and see dangers – Islamic terrorists, pirates, and corrupt dictators chief among them. This may not be the first time China has made advances in Africa. But this time around, its economic might and no-strings-attached sales pitch may prove a winning combination.

Pivot to Africa

The U.S. recognized the need to boost its presence in Africa because of its geographic and strategic importance. The establishment of U.S. Africa Command and its 2008 designation as a separate combatant command exhibit America’s renewed commitment to security on the continent. America has expanded airstrips to accommodate increasing personnel and logistical traffic and ramped up its training and liaison support of African militaries and intelligence agencies and institutions such as the African Union. U.S. Special Forces, intelligence officers and security contractors have been increasingly employed to target militants. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a recent trip to the region, linked U.S. assistance with a country’s democratic achievements.

Washington now has a military and intelligence presence in over a dozen countries there. For example, it employs private contractors to fly light civilian aircraft out of Burkina Faso over western Africa to track militants. Djibouti is its largest permanent base, home to 4,000 U.S. personnel and a hub for UAVs and manned reconnaissance aircraft. Washington also flies manned reconnaissance aircraft from Uganda, assisting in the hunt for Joseph Kony’s LRA. It has also established drone bases in Niger and Ethiopia, expanded facilities in Kenya for training African troops, and deployed forces to Mali to assist British and French efforts following the 2012 coup. The U.S. has also sent troops to Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Congo and the Central African Republic in recent years. Most recently, it deployed a contingent to Nigeria to assist in the search for Boko Haram militants.

In contrast, China has focused on economic partnership and development. China’s rapid growth and demand for natural resources requires it to look outside its borders for stable and affordable resources. In this regard, Africa provides China with a bonanza: Over 85% of China’s imports from Africa consist of raw natural resources. Trade between Africa and China has swelled by 30% per annum over the last ten years, while trade volume has been more than double that with the United States. China has also invested in roads, railways and ports to help transport these resources, benefiting Africans as well. For example, China recently pledged to build a $3.8 billion railway in Kenya. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited the same African countries John Kerry had just a few weeks before.

Whereas the Chinese looks at Africa and sees dollar signs, the United States looks at the continent and sees dangers – Islamic terrorists, pirates, and corrupt dictators chief among them.
Unlike the United States and other Western trade partners, China does not condition its relationships in Africa with political or ideological commitments. This advantage is appreciated by African strongmen subject to harangues from the West on democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Still, some fear China’s goals are purely mercenary and an attempt to “lock up” all of Africa’s resources and that China will abandon the continent once it has gotten what it wants.

Reading Mao in Kinshasa

This is not for the first time Africa has become a chessboard of global competition between great powers, especially China. Though Washington and Moscow competed in Africa, the more interesting story is the competition between Beijing and Moscow for “hearts and minds” in Africa. As the Sino-Soviet Split deepened in the early 1960s, China began to challenge the Soviet Union for leadership of the socialist bloc. It saw an opportunity to build independent influence in states recently liberated from or still fighting for independence from European colonialism. Its influence was strongest in nearby North Korea and the former French colonies Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. However, as Jeremy Friedman writes, China presented a real challenge to the Soviets in Africa as well.

It attempted to create an Afro-Asian bloc and played up its own armed guerrilla insurgency and quest for independence and development as shared traits with Africans struggling for the same. It supported Algerian independence when Moscow did not and pictured Khrushchev’s ‘peaceful co-existence’ with the West and disarmament talks as evidence of lack of support for armed socialist revolutionaries in Africa and elsewhere. Chinese propaganda depicted the 1963 Cuban Missile Crisis as Moscow backing down from the U.S. China greatly increased its African propaganda efforts by increasing local-language radio broadcasts and the distribution of books and pamphlets throughout the continent, far outpacing Soviet and even Western efforts. China seemed for a time to be winning the ideological battle with Moscow for leadership of socialism in the Third World.

But by 1963, it became apparent that though China was winning ideological and propaganda battles in Africa and elsewhere, it could not compete with the Soviet Union—or the West—in terms of material and financial support to socialist movements in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Cold War China lacked the capacity to provide large amounts of troops, weaponry or money to allies in far off places such as Africa. It could not buy nor project power. The Soviet Union and the West could. China lost its first round in the competition for Africa.

China is in a quite different position today. It is an economic powerhouse with the clear ability to contribute large amounts of wealth to the economies of African countries with the natural resources they seek. Today it is able to build the roads, railways and ports it could not afford during the Cold War and which the Soviets and the West could. While its first efforts in Africa were driven and focused purely on communist ideology and the shared revolutionary struggle, its African efforts today are marked by a clear lack of any connection to ideology. It buys resources and builds necessary infrastructure seemingly with no strings attached. Additionally, its relationship with the U.S. itself is one characterized by mutual dependence, rather than clear opposition as the competition during the Cold War was. African countries do not have to choose definitively between East and West.

While Chinese policy is to remain militarily disentangled from events that do not directly affect its interests, it has shown a greater willingness to contribute to African security. Beijing, for example, was instrumental in the passage of Security Council 1769 in 2007, authorizing a joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur. It has provided over 1500 troops to UN peacekeeping efforts in Africa, more than any other member of the UN Security Council. Its navy is part of the joint multinational effort to combat piracy off the African coast. Even Chinese aid and arms transfers to Africa have been misrepresented, as they give more military arm and aid to democratic regimes than the United States, according to a 2012 study.

In the mainstream narrative of the Cold War, the focus was placed on the conflict between the United States versus a monolithic Soviet Union, which supported socialist movements from Cape Horn to the Cape of Good Hope. But this was never the case. Moscow was not the puppet-master it was believed to be. China and the Soviet Union fell out badly beginning in the late 1950s, and the relationship remained rather sour until the 1980s. This has perpetuated a view that China has always been isolationist and lacking in ambitions overseas, as well as concerns over the “rise” of China being over-inflated. China, in fact, attempted to project power outside of its own borders before—in Africa specifically. Previously it tried and failed because it lacked the resources to become a global power. But that has all changed.

Beijing is once again putting up stiff competition for Africa, this time for Washington instead of Moscow. Its “no strings attached” partnerships are attractive to many African governments. America’s financial and military aid, by contrast, often comes with strings attached, such as criteria for good governance and human rights. China’s efforts focus on obtaining the natural resources it requires and pays African states well in return in terms of both sales and infrastructure development to obtain them with no added conditions. With $2 trillion in trade, China may well win its second round in the scramble for Africa.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Russia's NATO Expansion Myth

This article originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 28 May 2014.

It has recently been argued by some that Russia’s invasion and intrigue in the Ukraine was foreseeable and a natural consequence of NATO’s broken promise to Mikhail Gorbachev and the collapsing USSR not to expand eastwards into its former domains. Russian President Vladimir Putin is, so the theory goes, reacting to a 24-year program of US/NATO eastward expansion stemming from that broken promise. This is a grievance Russia has put forward in arguments against Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic States joining NATO and again in 2008 when possible NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine was discussed. The ‘broken promise’ thesis was also offered to explain Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia. The claim is that this course of events, or a similar one, was reasonably foreseeable, that some predicted it, and that it is a natural consequence. You reap what you sow. The problem is that NATO did not sow these seeds.

The myth that such a promise was made has been allowed to grow by assertion, speculation and incomplete information. More and more primary sources and memoirs of the participants in the negotiations between Washington, Bonn and Moscow have become available over time. There is a rich background of study of this particular controversy by academics such as Fred Oldenberg, Mark Kramer, Mary Elise Sarotte, and Kristina Spohr, among others. From the available interviews, memoirs, written documents, agreements, transcripts and notes on the multiple bilateral negotiations—from Soviet and East German sources as well as Western—it is clear the subject of the eastward expansion of NATO into former East bloc states was never discussed as a stand-alone issue and no such agreement or promise was given by Washington to Moscow. At a recent Council on Foreign Relations event, for example, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said U.S. negotiators never agreed to such a thing at the time.

The closest the participants ever came to directly tackling the issue was at the very beginning of the negotiations quickly following the collapse of Eastern European governments and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. West Germany’s Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher—more concerned with German issues than the larger Cold War—was concerned Moscow would take a hard line and wanted to make a pre-emptive offer to smooth their feathers—before the issue had ever been formally discussed between East and West—that a unified Germany would not be a member of NATO, but rather either neutral or a member of another strictly European organisation, the OSCE. Interestingly, Genscher became Chairman of the OSCE in 1991.

If NATO expansion was as vital an issue to Russia then as is claimed today, Moscow would and could have insisted on a clear statement of it in writing.
However, West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl did not endorse even this view. It would essentially mean West Germany leaving NATO. The U.S. and UK also disagreed. NATO without West Germany would have significantly weakened the organisation, making it an almost solely an Anglo-American affair after France all but exited in 1966. The official West German, U.S. and UK positions in negotiations with Moscow never included Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s idea. NATO’s eastward expansion was only discussed in clear text in the context of German reunification—namely whether NATO troops would be allowed on former-East German soil. NATO took the position that they had to be, as it would make no sense to have unified Germany as a full member with security guarantees for only half the country. Moscow agreed in the 1990 Treaty on Final Settlement with Respect to Germany that, yes, reunited Germany would remain in NATO, but no NATO troops should be moved into former East Germany until after all Soviet troops had departed. NATO was held to and kept this promise. Arguably, as NATO’s security blanket now also covered eastern Germany, it already represented an eastward expansion of NATO—by way of agreement with Moscow.

If NATO expansion was as vital an issue to Russia then as is claimed today, Moscow would and could have insisted on a clear statement of it in writing. It certainly would and should have wanted more than verbal assurances given during ongoing and evolving diplomatic negotiations. Of course some argue this away by claiming Moscow was outsmarted or outmanoeuvred by George HW Bush and Helmut Kohl and that the Soviets were under pressure to move quickly because of the impending collapse of Eastern European governments. Such a vital point must surely have been apparent to the Soviets. That former East bloc states may want to join the alliance one day was not so far outside the realm of possibilities. The idea had occurred to the U.S. State Department and Hungary and Poland were already discussing NATO membership in February 1990.

One important question should be asked: Why would NATO agree not to expand NATO eastwards? In 1990 the world held its breath at the prospect of the end of 45 years of Cold War. The United States and its trans-Atlantic partners had come out on top. Many in the Bush administration saw the job now as to help Gorbachev hold the situation together so that it did not descend into violent chaos. However, it would be extremely naïve to believe that the U.S. and its allies would agree to leave everything east of the Oder-Neisse Line alone, especially when they had finally won the Cold War. To do such a thing would fly in the face of 45 years of fighting a battle for democracy, capitalism and freedom against a communist vision of collectivism, oppression and stagnation. Why would NATO agree to forgo the fruits of victory? There is no written provision addressing NATO expansion contained in any of the agreements or communiques stemming from any of the negotiations. Those, such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Americans such as former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara and former US Ambassador to the USSR Jack Matlock, who assert such a promise was made have no concrete evidence to point to. They rely on retellings of flawed memories or the myths built from an assertion over time, all refuted by primary-source evidence. No such promise was ever made.

Regardless of the truth, the Russian government asserts, and many Russians undoubtedly believe, that such a promise was made and has been broken by NATO and the US specifically. Many others outside of Russia also believe it as an article of faith. Many want to believe it because it conforms to their Weltanschauung—worldview. With such cases, the truth is—sadly—unhelpful. Regardless of what was not promised, no less a personage than George Kennan asserted in 1998 that NATO expansion was unnecessary, that with the USSR gone there was no longer any threat and US support for continued expansion placed Russia up against a wall. Russia had to struggle to rebuild itself in a new post-Soviet image with a new role in Europe. Unable to join NATO or the EU, it watched as its former foe swallowed up more and more of its former satellites and crept into its ‘near abroad’. A reaction was to be expected. If this view is true, Vladimir Putin maintains a lingering Cold War imperialist mindset. Putin must see the 1990 negotiations, not as the final testament and rites of a dying empire, but as a sort of Neo-Potsdam Conference in which the Oder-Neisse Line was still being maintained, just with open borders, friendlier relations and looser control over satellites. Perhaps he considers it a bit like a much wider and more severe Polish or Prague Spring. He believes Russia was promised something by the US—that it would leave its near-abroad alone. He must also still believe Russia has a right to and should maintain dominance over its bordering states, as in the time of the Czar and Stalin after him. He does not believe these nations have a right to independent self-determination.

Putin must refuse to believe that Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, Georgia and now the Ukraine determined themselves they wanted to join NATO and/or the EU. For Russia, it can only be that America—and its partners Britain and France—conned or cajoled these states into coming over to their side of the ‘Iron Curtain’. For Putin, there is only Russia and the US and every other state is just a piece on the game board. If this is all true, it is understandable why Vladimir Putin wants to believe the US promised to leave Eastern Europe to him and Russia in 1990. This thinking also portrays some wishful thinking on America’s part, hoping against hope for the ‘end of history’ and the ‘peace dividend’. It is true that NATO was conceived to collectively confront the Soviet threat, now gone. However, to believe that the collapse of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact meant that NATO was no longer necessary because the last great evil had been defeated portrays naïve thinking and perhaps the doomed repetition of history.

The West still has not learned some lessons. We believed WWI was the ‘war to end all wars’. It was not. We believed the same at the end of WWII in 1945 and again at the end of the Cold War in 1990. While threats from Islamic terror and atomic rogue states have been exaggerated over the last 15 years, the history of the 20th century shows that America and Europe still need NATO. The world is still a dangerous place in which collective security remains necessary. In fact, looking at individual European military forces and defence budgets, collective security under NATO is all they have. None maintains a fighting force capable of mounting any sizeable operation without US support. History always returns. As with the dominant narrative of the Cold War, this thinking also leaves out the agency and will of other states besides the US and Russia. If the Cold War is truly over, then the Baltic and Eastern European states such as the Ukraine are not anymore just pawns or peons or customers to be convinced or coerced into choosing one side or the other. Even if such a promise had been made between NATO and Moscow 24 years ago—and it was not—they do not have the power to make decisions for these other countries today. They are sovereign, independent nations.

These states, their governments and their people control their own relations and chose to be members of NATO, the EU, the OSCE, and etcetera. After all, this freedom is what the US claimed to be fighting the Cold War for. It is within the Western rhetoric of freedom, independence and democracy. It was not the US or Europe who overthrew the Russian puppet government in the Ukraine in some Cold War-esque covert action—it was the Ukrainian people taking to the streets to demand change as they have several times over the last decade. To say that the US and its allies should have predicted and it was foreseeable that expanding NATO and considering Ukrainian EU membership would lead to a backlash from Russia is to ignore the individual will of Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians and reduce what they want to a secondary consideration. Anyone who claims this future was predictable based upon a false version of the past should be seriously questioned. Vladimir Putin believes Russia is entitled to control its neighbouring states as in the days of the USSR and the Russian Empire. It is not entitled to, no matter what it falsely believes it was promised 24 years ago.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

When Vets Kill

This post originally appeared in Cicero Magazine on 9 May 2014.

Are American vets saints or sinners? When incidents such as the 2009 and 2014 Fort Hood shootings, the 2012 Wisconsin Sikh Temple attack and the 2013 Washington Naval Yard shootings—all involving former military personnel—are combined in the media with reports of the epidemic of veteran suicide, veteran homelessness, military sexual trauma, and domestic violence among soldiers, it paints a grim picture. Yet the portrayal sends a mixed message when paired with the ‘celebrity Generals’ and corporate and political hero worship of serving troops and veterans. Such media depictions only serve to erect the metaphorical wall even higher between those who serve and those who do not, yet creating a kind of collective guilt among the latter that recoils in horror after such shootings, even as they cannot pass someone in uniform without reaffirming their patriotism with a token nod of support. More perplexing is when such shootings get hijacked by media discussions over PTSD, which distracts everyone from the real issue at stake: the presence of handguns on military bases, which are supposed to be citadels of security.So which is it: saints or sinners?

The answer is complicated, and one that is informed by this country’s collective urge to celebrate all things that support the troops, who Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich describes as the real “One Percent”, but without asking Americans to make a shred of sacrifice. God forbid that taxes were raised to pay for two wars or that anybody in Congress mention talk of a draft. In truth, a cynic might say that the troops are unfurled before the public whenever they help move product — whether to sell newspapers, to sell beer, to sell candidates, and so forth. The military and veterans are together one of the few institutions in America that continues to enjoy near-Universal, non-partisan respect. However this ‘respect’ often translates into little more than a pat on the back, a handshake and a ‘thanks for your service’. The struggles of America’s veterans are real. However, they are neither unblemished heroes nor violent mental psychopaths. What is missing from the veterans’ narrative depicted in the media is the veterans themselves.

Vets are portrayed as national saints or victims and perpetrators. Despite having such obvious symbolic power in America, veterans have little real power. Corporate boardrooms do not welcome them. There are virtually no veteran CEOs who do not work for military-related companies or in a project they did not start themselves. The US Congress has the lowest number of veteran members since the end of WWII. Military pay and benefits—long sacrosanct—are now being targeted as entitlements in fiscal battles in Washington. The VA benefits backlog is still a problem after decades of empty political promises. Many of those vets who do make it into powerful circles are often granted access because of who they come to know, not out of some belief that they merit success for their sacrifices. Most veterans organisations, new and old, have chosen or been forced to pick a partisan political side, despite the fact that neither side can claim to have clean hands when it comes to handling military and veterans affairs.
Madison Avenue has also gotten on the troops-are-heroes gravy train. One can hardly pick up a name-brand product at a grocery store in America without it carrying a notice that some of the corporate proceeds go to helping ‘our heroes’ through a tax-deductible veteran’s charity. The opening or halftime ceremony of every major sporting event features tributes to the troops.

While it is encouraging that veterans and charities are receiving this kind of attention, it is clearly not for altruistic motives. Images of US troops are being used to sell products. Almost every major corporate brand in America has a military page on its website where it professes to make special efforts to hire vets—leaving out mention of the tax incentives it receives to do so. For-profit colleges with questionable reputations for quality mercilessly target veterans for their GI Bill funds. Politicians and political action groups are the worst offenders in abusing service-members for their own personal gain, from sources as diverse as gay pride rallies to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Despite regulations against it, men and women in uniform are a favorite backdrop for elected officials who hope to gain from the legitimacy and public support the troops enjoy.
One can hardly pick up a name-brand product at a grocery store in America without it carrying a notice that some of the corporate proceeds go to helping ‘our heroes’ through a tax-deductible veteran’s charity.

This year’s Super Bowl featured a Budweiser ad showing a ‘Hero’s Welcome’ for a Lieutenant returning from Afghanistan. Budweiser at one point even claimed to have ‘Army support’ for the ad. Opinion among veterans was split as to whether the commercial stepped over the fine line between recognizing the troops and using them to sell products. It is against military regulations to appear in uniform to sell products or to participate in political activities. The US Army initially considered pursuing a cease-and-desist order to prevent the spot from airing and never adequately explained why it decided to allow Budweiser to go-ahead.

By way of contrast, immediately following the recent shootings at Fort Hood, Texas by Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, media reports were quick to point out that it happened on a military post, the shooter was a soldier, a veteran of the Iraq War, and apparently had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Parallels were immediately drawn between this incident, the 2009 Fort Hood shootings by Major Nadal Hassan and the 2013 Washington Naval Yard shootings by Navy Reservist Aaron Alexis. Even the killing of three people at a Jewish community center in Kansas by a Klansman was linked to the gunman’s status as a Vietnam vet. With 24-hour television news and most major newspapers providing extensive coverage in the days and weeks following the Lopez shootings, one would be excused for believing there must be an epidemic of violence among American troops and veterans. Inside each of us, the media appears to insinuate, is a Timothy McVeigh itching to be heard.

But the depiction is false. A law enforcement analysis of 29 active shooter incidents between 1999 and 2012 found that most were workplace-related incidents committed by lone young men, the majority of which used semiautomatic pistols and died in the incident, either by their own hand or through the response of law enforcement personnel. Almost all of them had long-term issues with work or family. The most interesting fact is that of these 29 incidents, only 4 were current or former military personnel. One of them, Major Nadal Hassan, cited Islamic terror as his motive. Another, the Wisconsin Sikh Temple shootings, was motivated by racial hatred. The other two exhibited histories and grievances consistent with the other 25 non-veteran shooters. Based on this data, arguably there is no link between military service, PTSD and shooting rampages.

Specialist Ivan Lopez has the same profile as non-veteran active shooters. He was a young, lone male with a semiautomatic pistol who eventually turned his weapon on himself when confronted by law enforcement. The picture that has emerged of Lopez is of someone struggling to adjust to a new home, a new career and difficulties with his superiors—a situation that is not military-specific whatsoever. He just happened to be a soldier. Contrary to common views, Lopez did not just snap; he was likely harboring a long-simmering resentment toward his workplace and what he saw as unfairness in his life. The fact he already had his weapon in his car on the day of the shooting incident suggests a degree of premeditation or that he was already considering the possibility of taking action.

But the media immediately latched onto the fact he was a soldier, had deployed to Iraq and was being evaluated for PTSD. Much has since been made of the fact that he deployed to Iraq for only four months as proof he could not have PTSD. In fairness, one incident on one day is enough to be traumatized if severe enough. Different people are affected in different ways and, contrary to the media narrative, development and severity of PTSD does not depend upon the number of months or tours served in combat. One of the issues of treating PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury is that they are mental wounds which can only be diagnosed by their symptoms as reported by or observed in the patient.

Perhaps Lopez did have PTSD, perhaps not. There is no way to know now. It actually matters very little. Despite the connection the media immediately draws in such circumstances, there is only a very weak connection between PTSD and violence. However it is clear that Specialist Lopez was struggling to deal with his life in a way that many non-military, non-veteran Americans do every day, a struggle which can lead to violence. However this has not kept the media from playing up the military-PTSD aspect.
When it comes to US troops and veterans, the American media has developed a clearly detectable ‘Madonna/Whore Complex’, in which those who serve are invariably portrayed as either perfections of virtue beyond reproach (see the fawning coverage of David Petraeus prior to 2012) or as victims of the government or society or as perpetrators with festering mental health issues which may lead to suicide, violence or even murder.

Consider the following headline: “Veterans with PTSD Linked to Everything That Could Kill Your Children.” Fortunately, it is from the military satire site The Duffel Blog. Adding to this state of affairs is the (ab)use of service-members and veterans in media campaigns by politicians, political action committees and corporations for their own gain. Troops have become the new talking babies or cute kittens playing with yarn – mere props to move product and check Americans’ box to pay tribute for their service, and maybe even profit off their presence. Whenever events like the Fort Hood shooting presents us with a more nuanced and untidy picture of our veterans’ well-beings, we tend to veer into the other extreme, painting them with a broad brush as PTSD-addled killers. That is not to simply grasp the cliché that the truth is somewhere in between, but rather that most of our veterans are not unlike any other segment of the American population.

Take Specialist Ivan Lopez. On another day, in different circumstances, a former police officer, Iraq War vet and Army reservist who decided to switch to driving trucks on active duty to feed his family would have been a hero. He would have been in a Budweiser commercial or spoke at the local VFW. Instead, the media pictures him as a frustrated loser with PTSD who was ten years older than other troops his rank who could not handle his troubles anymore. The veteran is a war hero one day, an armed killer the next. Within hours of the shootings and his suicide, the story was already creating media churn and being put to political use by politicians and advocacy organisations. It has become the latest chapter in the debate about guns in America. One side argues that active shootings like those in Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Fort Hood could have been prevented if the public, school officials, and off-duty soldiers were allowed to be armed in public. The message has to focus on Lopez’s undiagnosed PTSD and mental health issues. It was not easy access to firearms that caused this shooting; it was Lopez’s mental health issues. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

Contrary to popular belief, living on a military post means less access and exposure to privately-owned firearms than living off post. The weapons used by Major Nadal Hassan and Specialist Ivan Lopez were obtained off post at private establishments and kept against military regulations. Though every company-sized military element on a base counts hundreds of firearms among its equipment, access to this weaponry is very tightly controlled by commanders and armorers. Troops cannot simply draw out their assigned rifle at will. It can only be for a purpose authorized by the unit commander. Though military posts such as Fort Hood may contain tens of thousands of small arms weapons, they are kept secure in padlocked racks or cages behind bank vault doors armed with alarms that notify military police directly any time an arms room is accessed. Most military facilities with arms rooms are also manned by soldiers 24 hours a day. Any time a weapon leaves a vault, a paper trail is created as to who signed for it, when, and what armorer allowed it out. Access to weaponry is taken seriously by the US military.

Contrast this with the various disjointed, inconsistent and ill-enforced laws regulating the purchase, use, transport, carrying and storage of civilian firearms outside of bases across the United States. No matter your interpretation of the 2nd Amendment, even transporting a firearm from one town or county to another can lead to an unknowing violation of the law. Each city, county and state seems to have its own rules and regulations and the federal government seems to change its application or interpretation of firearms regulations depending upon who is in Congress or the White House. America’s gun laws, no matter your view of them, are a tragi-comical absolute mess.

Many troops own personal firearms as well. Military policy requires these weapons be registered with their unit and must be stored in the same arms room as military weaponry and are subject to the same controls. As with military-issue weaponry, access to personal weapons is only by arrangement with the armorer with the permission of the unit commander.
Yet some on the right would like to see more guns on military posts. More guns would not stop or deter an active shooter like Ivan Lopez. These are people who have determined they will commit a violent act and will continue to shoot people until they are shot by police or shoot themselves. The Hasan and Lopez shootings took place during the duty day and military police were on the scene within fifteen minutes. Both incidents were over quickly. Introducing an off duty soldier who happened by chance to be in the area and carrying his personal weapon into the situation could serve only to cause confusion among law enforcement as to who the perpetrator is. This would be made worse if word spreads across a post and draws armed soldiers who want to help, creating a tangle of armed troopers without command and control. Soldiers do not behave that way in combat and it makes equally less sense to do so on post. Law Enforcement, with special training, radios and coordination should handle such incidents.

It is rather ironic that the media focused on the military and PTSD aspect of the Lopez shooting rather than use it as an opportunity to discuss responsible gun laws. Instead, they’re portraying soldiers as victim-perpetrators to sell newspapers. In the case of Ivan Lopez, it was not PTSD or a soldier’s fondness for guns or access to military weaponry that allowed this latest Fort Hood shooting to occur. Lopez’s grievances with the world were not military-specific. They were the same issues many civilians have. Military weapons were not involved.

It was the easy access to weaponry off post that allowed Ivan Lopez to obtain a firearm in Killeen, Texas (ironically, from the same gun shop where Major Nadal Hasan bought one of his guns) and bring it onto post to kill his fellow soldiers. This incident had nothing to do with Lopez being a soldier or if he had PTSD or any failure in military policy as the media and some politicians and advocacy groups have claimed. It was the America outside of Fort Hood that allowed this incident to occur. If America outside the walls of military posts had as sensible gun control laws and took weapons as seriously as the America inside them, active shootings like this could be stopped.

Which returns us to the general public’s schizophrenic relationship with its armed forces. So long as there is this metaphorical wall between us and them, there will be this mixed message after tragedies whereby we praise our heroes with our right hand, while condemning their PTSD with our other hand, even as we refuse to do anything to fix our own gun-obsessed culture. Carry on America “supporting the troops,” with tributes, fundraisers, and shout-outs during seventh innings.
Keep patting backs, wearing t-shirts and slapping on bumper stickers. But if you really want to pay tribute to their sacrifice, fix this country. Make it into one that is worth fighting for and that the troops are welcome and safe to return to.