Saturday, December 23, 2006

Pre-Christmas news stories of note

A lot of important developments, particularly in American policy in the Middle East, have happened since the November election.  Here are a few items that I would hate to see buried in the pre-Christmas rush.

This may be the strangest one.  The Cheney-Bush administration has generally followed policies that were suitable for Israeli hardliners, not least because the Christian Right who supports those policies are the most important part of their electoral base.  Now, the administration is pushing Israel not to negotiate with Syria even though the Olmert government wants to.  The Cheney-Bush government is now more "pro-Israel" than the current hardline Israeli government.  See Pat Lang, "Israel, Syria and Bush’s Veto" Sic Semper Tyrannis 2006 blog 12/22/06; Daniel Levy, The Syria Litmus Test Huffington Post 12/21/06; and, Israel, Syria and Bush's Veto The Jewish Daily Forward 12/22/06.

Military analyst William Arkin who blogs at the Washington Post consistently provides much more interesting and important reading in his Early Warning blog than the Post's official columnists.  In More Troops Buys Silence of the Lambs 12/21/06, he explains how our infallible generals and the Cheney-Bush administration ran a little bait-and-switch game right under our noses over the troop-increase issue that he approved this past weeek.  They deliberately blurred the increase of permanent troop levels for the Army and Marine Corps with the upcoming escalation "surge" in Iraq.  They're not connected.  Except, as Arkin says, in "horse trading".

Arkin writes:

The first thing that should be understood about more though is that adding tens of thousands of troops to the U.S. military isn't instant. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that it would take two years to recruit and train a new division.  In other words, it is not about winning inIraq now.  (my emphasis)

The Democrats need to face the fact that the Republicans will always accuse them of being "soft on defense", no matter what they do or say.  So the Dems should proceed on pushing for a much more realistic foreign policy and a military policy to go with it.  And they should hold up things like this permanent troop increase to public scrutiny.  If they do it enough, maybe even our "press corps" will start paying more attention.

Whether or not we need more soldiers and Marines should not be considered apart from the long-term considerations of how the soldiers will be used.  Are our infallible generals going to continue to prepare almost exclusively for fighting Soviet Army Central, i.e., for conventional war?   Or are they going to give much more emphasis to what the Pentagon calls OOTW (operations other than war), e.g., counterinsurgency and nation-building?

And that's not a purely technical military decision, by any means.  If we're going to adopt a policy of never getting involved in counterinsurgency - which is the logic behind the Pentagon's force posture since the Vietnam War - then we need a foreign policy that just says no to interventions like the Iraq War or even the Afghanistan War.

If we are going to prepare for possible counterinsurgency wars like in Afghanistan, then that requires some major military reform.  It also requires a drastic change in the current "transformation" of the military, which will mean less corporate welfare for defense contractors and war profiteers.  It's not at all a simple matter of adding more authorized troops strength.

I would also note that the time-frame Perfect Peter Pace mentioned above of two years to train another division also applies to draftees.  In other words, if Bush's bet-the-farm "surge" fails, even instituting a draft won't provide anything like immediate relief.

Another of Pat Lang's recent posts that should not go down the memory hole is this one: IO [Information Operations] in the US? Legitimate or not? Sic Semper Tyrannis blog 12/06/06.

In that post, he reminds us of how a bad "lesson of Vietnam" plays into rightwing Republican ideology about the Liberal Press conspiracy:

As I have mentioned before, propaganda and information content management have become major pre-occupations of the US armed forces in the post Vietnam era.  Why?  It is because all of us who experienced defeat in Vietnam have spent decades trying to understand why that happened and the conclusion reached (mistakenly I think) is that the left successfully propagandized the American people against us and our effort.  As a result the military now speaks of "kinetic operations," (fighting with material weapons) and "information operations," (propaganda and media manipulation.

Lang also cites a disturbing example of a serving military officer conducting an illegitimate propaganda function aimed at the American people in the form of this op-ed: Why We Persevere By William Caldwell IV (the chief U.S. military spokesman in Iraq) Washington Post 12/06/06.

This is one of many areas in which the public in general and the Democratic elected officials in particular need to demystify military affairs and take a close look at this kind of activity.  One thing that I see from browsing some of the "milblogs" is that they see the feel-good propaganda pieces at the CENTCOM Web site as an alternative source to the Liberal Press that is providing the "real story" of the war in Iraq.

In The War Managers (1977), Douglas Kinnard reported extensively on the results of a survey he did in 1974 of generals who had served in Vietnam.  Their opinions of the news media and their performance during the Vietnam War was a major topic.

Kinnard notes an important turning point early in the war that made the reporters covering Vietnam particularly skeptical of military claims about progress in the war:

In January 1963 there occurred an action the aftermath of which destroyed good relations between the press and the military in South Vietnam — the battle at Ap Bac in the northern Delta between an armored element of the ARVN [South Vietnamese Army] Seventh Division and a Vietcong unit. It was a disaster for the ARVN; yet American headquarters in Saigon referred to it as a victory. The American andBritish correspondents who were there knew otherwise, and reported what they knew. Some stories quoted John Paul Vann, then a lieutenant colonel, on the high quality of the VC and the cowardly actions of the ARVN.

The reaction of the American Mission [in Vietnam] was violent — the correspondents were "inexperienced," "unsophisticated," "irresponsible," and their reports "sensationalized." In Washington, reports coming from field correspondents were characterized as "emotional" and "inaccurate." [David] Halberstam [of the New York Times], in particular, was singled out to the point where President Kennedy tried unsuccessfully to have him reassigned.

After Ap Bac, correspondents, convinced that the Mission was lying to them, relied on their own sources - in fact, withdrew into their own community. It should be noted that they were not questioning the propriety of the American presence; that was to come later. No doubt existed at this point regarding the premises of United States involvement or of its ability to prevail. There were questions about the South Vietnamese ability to fight and about the tactics being employed, but as yet the correspondents were not raising the big question of whether we should be there at all. (my emphasis)

The American advisers like Vann knew very well it was a disaster for the ARVN.  But the official Pentagon spokesmen wanted to lie about it.  As in many cases like this, it's worth asking who they were trying to deceive.  The advisers?  Hardly.  The Vietcong?  It's was the Vietcong who won the battle; they certainly knew about it?  The US generals?  Hopefully they knew the truth about it.  The South Vietnamese public?  Probably.  The American public?  Undoubtedly.

It wasn't a matter of military security, in other words.  It was a matter of propaganda for the folks back home.  That's why it seems so incredibly gullible to me when I see the "milbloggers" promoting some smiley-face CENTCOM press release as being the real scoop on the Iraq War.

There is a lot to be said about media coverage of the Vietnam War, particularly the role of TV.  I'm inclined to think that the role of TV coverage as such in turning public opinion against the war tends to be grossly overestimated by both fans and critics of the Vietnam War.  But what I want to focus on here is the lesson that Pat Lang referred to about the role of the media in the Vietnam War.  The generals in the 1974 survey indeed mostly drew the kind of lesson that Lang describes:

[William] Westmoreland's [commander in Vietnam under Lyndon Johnson] generals shared his negative view of the performance of the news media in Vietnam. That they would have such a view is not surprising, but the intensity of their feelings is: 89 percent negative toward the press, and 91 percent negative toward television. On only one other matter in the survey, the quality of ARVN, was a consensus so nearly approached. It should be noted that the different wording of the two negative questions on each medium indicates a far deeper negative orientation toward television than toward the [print] press...

There was a great deal of commentary on these questions. It can be grouped into clusters. Several of the respondents felt that the reporters had made up their minds in advance that going into Vietnam was a mistake and were out to prove their point. Many generals attributed a lack of support of the war by the American people to the media. One senior general said that the media conducted "a psychological warfare campaign against the United States policies in Vietnam that could not have been better done by the enemy."

A large number of respondents commented on the media's representation of the war, some saying that the reporters simply did not understand the war, and in other cases that reporting was distorted for effect. In some instances editors at home were blamed for distorting stories or writing misleading headlines. A former Chief of Staff studied combat photography closely and was convinced that much of it was staged. One Division Commander tells of seeing a telegram from one of the major TV networks to a field reporter in his area which read, "Get footage of American soldiers misbehaving."  [Kinnard does not cite any documentation of this other than this survey response comment.] (my emphasis)

This negative attitude on the part of the generals was, of course, highly self-serving; it wasn't our brilliant generals who failed and who lied to the public about the war, it was those evil reporters not telling the story the way the generals wanted ittold.  It's also worth noting that these attitudes very much reflect the position that the Nixon-Agnew administration took in demonizing The Media in general, not just over the Vietnam War.

Kinnard also notes that some of the generals did have what I would call a more realistic view:

Not all of the generals were critical of the media. A minority saw shortcomings in the military's handling of reporting the progress in the war. One respondent put it this way: "We placed too much emphasis on the positive, and were over-sensitive to criticism, while engaging in false reporting to cover up setbacks. This, in time, led to our losing credibility."  (my emphasis)

Kinnard also makes this important observation:

One would expect the military managers of the war to have a negative attitude toward media coverage of events in or concerning that tragedy. Aside from problems of waging the war itself, there are more fundamental reasons. The traditional authoritarian nature of military services requires a tight control of all events, including news distribution. The professional expertise of officers concerning military operations permits them to be more critical of news coverage of such matters than civilians. Also, their deep involvement in military matters causes them to evaluate the treatment by media of matters concerning the military.  (my emphasis)

Authoritarian civilians also tend to be hostile toward a free and critical-minded press, as well.  The fact that the rightwingers keep up an unending and often downright hysterical rant about the "liberal media" even today, when the press is far less critical and far more subservient to the incumbent administration's wishes and far more eager to adopt Republican Party talking points than was the case in the 1960s, is a good illustration of that characteristic of the authoritarian outlook.

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