If I wrote a blog post each time something I read annoyed me, I would obviously blog more frequently. Two things that I have noticed over the past few days, though, deserve especial mention this morning.
1. If you study conflict and conflicts long enough, you will either gain invaluable perspective over your peers or lose your perspective entirely. By the end of his career, for example, the late John Keegan, who once wrote this masterpiece which forever changed the way military historians write history, was writing silly things like, "Politics played no part in the conduct of the First World War worth mentioning." (Step forward, Hew Strachan.)
Robert Fisk has his defenders and his detractors. I have never been accused of being the former, though I re-read a lot of his reporting for The Times in the 1980s as part of my doctoral work and came away impressed by his earlier work. Fisk has been accused by his peers of being a fabulist, and today he writes columns for the Independent. He once bragged to me, after I questioned the veracity of one particular column, that his editors never question what he writes. I'll let you decide whether or not that is a good thing. Of late, meanwhile, Fisk has been the target of some pretty withering satire.
Fisk's column today is the result of what happens when an observer of conflict loses all moral perspective. Fisk does not excuse any atrocities or crimes. No, he does the opposite. For Fisk, all crimes of war are now for all intents and purposes equal, and all armies at war are criminal. This is a valid perspective, I guess, in that one could make a moral argument in its favor. But unlike this, it doesn't tell me anything useful about what is taking place in Syria. If all acts of wars are crimes and they are all equal, I don't need Robert Fisk's first-hand observations, do I? They don't tell me anything of substance.
Among his peers, Fisk is arguably the least popular journalist covering either conflict or the Middle East today. That's probably because in addition to the alleged fabulism and lack of any useful perspective, in Fisk's narrative of conflict and conflicts, there is only room for one truly good man: and that man's name is always "Robert Fisk."
2. I finished Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War this weekend -- yes, I realize that reads exactly how Robert Fisk might begin one of his columns -- and a few things struck me:
a. The successful Roman counterinsurgency campaign in Gaul took eight years.
b. The enemies against which Rome fought were not a unitary actor, and neither were Rome's allies.
c. Rome's allies one summer were often Rome's enemies by winter. And visa versa.
But the two things that made the biggest impression on me were the following:
d. Caesar was the commander for eight full years, and he enjoyed similar continuity among his subordinate commanders.
e. Caesar very rarely sent green units into the offensive. By the fourth and fifth year of the campaign, he is still making those legions which were the last to be raised in Italy responsible for guarding the freaking baggage. He relies over and over again on those legions -- most especially the Tenth -- that have proven themselves in combat in Gaul.
With Caesar's commentaries in mind, I read Doug Ollivant's lament about Gen. Joe Dunford. Gen. Dunford will be the fifteenth commander of NATO-ISAF in eleven years of combat in Afghanistan and the ninth U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Each of his subordinate commanders have rotated on an annual basis. Gen. Dunford -- who is, by all accounts, an excellent officer and highly respected by his peers -- has never served in Afghanistan.
The cultures, politics, tribes and peoples of Afghanistan are at least as complex as those of ancient Gaul, yet we Americans are so arrogant to think that we can send officers there with no experience and, owing to our superior knowledge of combat operations, watch them succeed. We will then send units which have never deployed to Afghanistan to partner with Afghan forces and wonder why they do not get along.
This is madness. The casual arrogance with which the U.S. military has approached the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has a direct relation to the difficulty with which we have fought each war. That we think we can send a commander to Afghanistan with no prior knowledge of Afghanistan and watch him be successful in the eleventh year of the conflict shows that after eleven years of conflict, we really don't know too much about Afghanistan. And we might not know too much about conflict either.
I just subscribed to the New York Times. Just now. My actions were entirely prompted by this article and video by C.J. "Chris" Chivers and the accompanying photographs by Bryan Denton. In the interests of full disclosure, both Chris and Bryan are friends of mine, but I had never before been moved to shell out my own money for the right to enjoy their journalism. I was today, overwhelmed with appreciation for the quality of the work these men have done over the past week.
I grew up working at my family newspaper in Tennessee and have made a lot of friends through my work over the past decade who are paid to report on both the greater Middle East and the world's conflicts. I have a real appreciation and some small understanding for what these men and women do, but I also know that the logistics and costs associated with sending men like Chris and Bryan to Syria are considerable. Last month, in fact, the New York Times Co. posted an $88 million second-quarter loss.
I am not inclined to treat for-profit companies like charity cases, and the New York Times Co. has made a lot of poor business decisions that have nothing to do with the work its journalists produce. I also realize that I am now helping to pay the salaries of some reporters and columnists who shall remain nameless but whose work I respect less than that of Chris and Bryan. (Or any of the many other men and women on the staff of the Times whose work I admire.)
But if I have to underwrite some columnist's misguided thought experiment to help pay for Bryan's life insurance or the college tuition for Chris's kids, I'm okay with that. If you are too, click here.
A few months ago, I was sitting around on a Saturday morning before a rugby game when I got an email on my blackberry from Greg Jaffe, who was in Afghanistan. I started reading this email aloud to some of my teammates, pausing every few seconds because I was laughing too hard to continue. I told Greg that he had to publish this email in some format or else I would post it on Abu Muqawama. Greg finally dressed the email up for publication in the Washington Post (meaning he deleted several items: the F Word about 34 times, a not-fit-for-the-Post story about coming home from war and seeing a girl you knew from high school working in a strip club, and -- most sadly -- the self-mocking references to his own condition as a print journalist in a war zone), and you can read it here. This dialogue will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has ever spent any time stuck in some godforsaken place with an infantry platoon filled with 19-year old American men. Hilarious.
[I like Greg a lot, not only because he had the sense to marry a nice girl from Chattanooga, but also because he is one of those smart, humble journalists, completely lacking any ego, who really take the time to get to know soldiers, officers and U.S. Army culture. One of the good guys.]
I just found this via Arabist. This is Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Middle East correspondent for the New York Times (and the Boston Globe and Washington Post before that), speaking at my alma mater.
The real subject of this post is communication, and when it all goes wrong.
Londonstani has spent most of the day confused by an interview in the Independent with Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb. The British soldier tasked with finding ways to make Afghan insurgents into ex-insurgents without resorting to the traditional military method of just killing them.
Was the general saying something radically new to warrant a headline that practically screamed "Army chief; "We must tackle Taliban grievences"? (note: shouldn't that be grievances?)
The first paragraph read: "The British commander tasked with helping to bring to an end eight years of war in Afghanistan by persuading the Taliban to lay down their arms believes many in the enemy ranks have "done nothing wrong".
Was he saying the Taliban weren't really all that bad. Was this some sort of pimped-up repeat of the embarrassing 2006 Musa Qila deal, where an agreement between locals and the British military resulted in the town falling to the Taliban?
Well, actually, Lamb was only repeating an idea that has become an accepted part of the tool box that will be employed in Afghanistan; most Taliban fighters aren't hardened terror-loving ideologues and are so open to being persuaded to lay down their weapons. The problem here is the reporting.
The way the first paragraph uses the phrase "done nothing wrong" and in the second paragraph, "Lieutenant-General Sir Graeme Lamb told The Independent that many in the Taliban's rank and file carry a sense of "anger and grievances which have not been addressed", makes it sound like the writer's trying to be ironic in that "how-could-they say-such-a-thing" sort of way.
The fuller quote which is lower down makes a bit more sense: "We need to take a good look at the people we consider to be our enemies. A lot of young men fighting us have not done anything wrong. They have anger and grievances which have not been addressed. The better life they expected has not materialised; these are the people we must talk to, but we must make sure we have something to offer them."
You mean, we need to understand the people we are fighting and figure out why they are doing it?.. okaay, that doesn't sound too stupid
The article is alarmist, inaccurate and destined to provoke knee-jerk reactions. And the reason for that is pretty mundane. The Independent doesn't get many exclusives. Lamb gave them his first interview since he was appointed to the post by Gen. McChrystal so they had to make a big deal out of it but were stuck because he didn't really offer anything news worthy (ie anything new), so they made hammed up the comments they had.
To get an idea of what sort of context his comments should have been seen in, have a look at the Reuters pick up of similar comments he gave to the BBC.
LONDON (Reuters) - A retired British general sent to Afghanistan to explore ways of negotiating with members of the Taliban said on Thursday money might convince young fighters to give up their arms.
While this is the AFP pick up of the comments from the Independent article itself (but without the hysteria and spin):
LONDON (AFP) – The British commander overseeing a programme of reconciliation with "moderate" Taliban fighters on Friday said talking with the rank-and-file was essential to ending the conflict.
Ahaa.. so it all sounds a whole lot less sexy now.
Part of the reason this has gotten way up Londonstani's nose, is that he was at a discussion in London attended by media types covering foreign affairs and a senior editor from the Independent spoke about the innate superiority of newspapers over blogs. Her point was that newspapers are staffed by trained professionals who are able to put comments in their proper context and provide the public with the information it needs to take positions on policies carried out in its name. Londonstani can only conclude that possibly the Independent's staff of trained professionals had the day off.
Afghanistan needs proper reporting, but this isn't it.
Londonstani used to love this newspaper as a kid.. please someone shut it and put it out of its misery
Coming at the issue of journalism, propaganda, and war/insurgencies from a slightly different angle, this clip from the archives of ABC News is currently being passed around among the Vietnam veterans community.
It is the ABC evening news, hosted at that time by Howard K. Smith (who first came to fame for reporting on WWII with Edward R. Murrow, and whose son fought at LZ Albany in November ‘65) and Harry Reasoner. The date is 28 April 1972. To put that in perspective, this is after the U.S. pulled out ground troops from the Republic of Vietnam. The North Vietnamese had just started what is now called (in the US anyway) the “Easter Offensive,” an almost completely conventional cross-border assault. The U.S. is responding solely, if overwhelmingly, with airpower. The South Vietnamese are doing the fighting on the ground. A little more than two weeks after this report John Paul Vann will take over de facto control from Vietnamese LTG Dzu and personally orchestrate American airpower in the defense of Kontum, effectively crushing the NVA attack and saving the RVN. Forty-one days later he himself will be killed in a helicopter crash. The offensive was defeated.
The issue for consideration is the fact that this link/clip is being passed around by U.S. Vietnam veterans as an example of American anti-military media bias during the war. In other words, traitorous propaganda on behalf of the North Vietnamese enemy. Take a look, see if you see the same thing.