In the past week I have watched six hours of Frontline documentaries and finished the book Black Hawk Down, which has helped to thoroughly envelope me in the complex world of American foreign policy military culture. I’m still processing a lot of it, but when has that ever stopped me? Let’s shoot from the hip.
Frontline is PBS’s investigative reporting show that probably has a left-leaning slant, but that (remarkably) doesn’t diminish the quality of its content. In my opinion its journalism is consistently the most objective of its kind as it is consistently filled with powerful facts, informative interviews, and careful analysis. In an age of spin, sound bites, and the utterly moronic 24 hour news cycle Frontline’s programming is more than a breath of fresh air. I often don’t weigh in on an important issue decisively until I see their report, and that has never been intentional. They simply know how to inform the public.
Bush’s War is a two part series that exposits the war in Iraq from its suggested beginnings on 9/11 to controversial troop surge. The focus is primarily on how Bush’s cabinet took the steps to invasion with the unfolding drama between Powell and Rumsfeld at its center. Dick Cheney features prominently in almost Machiavellian fashion that makes the war his as much as Bush’s. Condoleezza Rice steps in for the beleaguered Powell and undoes Rumsfeld’s monopoly of policy-making, which truly was the best thing that could have happened in an otherwise terrible situation.
Interestingly, Rumsfeld all along wanted a “light footprint” in Iraq. His policy was to simply “stand up” the Iraqi military through our training them, and “stand down” American forces as things were handed off. The policy utterly failed as the insurgency was free to make its attacks on unsecured cities, particularly Baghdad, where the Iraqi forces were woefully ill-equipped to handle it. Through means of terror Al Qaeda was able to pit Sunni against Shia, almost obliterating any hope of a unified nation.
Rice, going around Rumsfeld, did her own research on the situation and found an officer who implemented a “clear, hold, and build” strategy in an urban area that was working. The strategy called for a heavier footprint in harm’s way, but it was able to effectively dispense with the insurgency and Al Qaeda, win the favor of the people, and put vital infrastructure in place. Hence the call for the troop surge. Rumsfeld was out and Gates was in, and Rice was vindicated.
No doubt it was certainly foolish for the US to invade Iraq. The flawed rationale used to enter into the war has resulted in an embarrassment for the Administration, and the American people. However, what is interesting to note in the current campaigns is that Obama’s strategy for withdrawal is not unlike Rumsfeld’s disastrous Light Footprint strategy. I am convinced that Obama’s policies will result in a resurgence of violence that will ultimately be a victory of the insurgents. McCain’s long-term goals support the so far successful Clear Hold and Build strategy, which is the best hope for a stable Iraq. It is understandable to me why someone would want to support Obama if they were against the war from the beginning, but his latest tour in the Middle East reveals an utterly vacuous understanding of what is needed, which is evidenced by his sputtering and stammering in front of reporters asking the tough questions. Hope will not come through the kind of change Obama wants to see in Iraq, and no one should support him if they really are serious about seeing the young democracy survive.
However, at the same time, this will cost the American people a great deal. Frontline’s episode of the Voodoo Platoon catalogs experience of a unit that is on its third tour in Iraq. Much of the footage reveals the soldiers driving through a barren wasteland petrified of being blown up by IEDs. The depression, PTSD, and the strain of family ties is heart-wrenching to watch. My reflections on the report caused me to revisit the question: can you support the troops and not support their mission? The answer to that often has no easy answer.
Military experience is one of brotherhood and survival. It is not something that is bound together by ethical and political questions that politicians and policy-makers have to deal with. This is illustrated all too well in Mark Bowder’s book Black Hawk Down. The Battle of Mogadishu was one that the United States would like to forget as it is thought to have paid a huge price for so little gain. At the time, very few people supported the policy in Somalia and could not justify any further conflict in the civil war-ravaged state. Many in legislative branch, including Senator McCain, wanted the troops home. However, most of the men would have liked to continue their mission. They felt betrayed that their bloody effort was deemed unimportant and stood aghast when the warlord’s officials, whom they had worked so hard to capture, were released a few months later. Support for the troops is bound up in how we view the price they pay and whether it is a worthy one. Saying it isn’t worthy should result in support for getting them out of the situation that requires them to pay it. But often it is too late for that, and those who have paid it are left alone to deal with the consequences.