May 25, 2009

Fallen on the Field of Honor

I can't be sure, of course, but I would guess my readership is pretty near the last group of U.S. readers on the internet who need to be reminded of this day and what it means. For our readers outside the United States, today is Memorial Day -- a day when we remember those who have fallen on the field of battle. Again, I suspect my readers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, etc. are more likely to know men and women who have fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan than the average reader browsing to check out news from the NBA playoffs this morning.

Many thanks to all of our readers who have served the allied nations in combat, and especial thanks to those who have sacrificed in blood.

This morning, a few articles of note caught my eye. The first was this article on civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Should we accord them the same honor we extend to servicemen?

But don't expect President Obama to remember or thank the contractor personnel who died supporting our troops or diplomatic missions. Instead, expect to see contractor personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to be portrayed as expendable profiteers, adventure seekers or marginalized members of society who are not entitled to the same respect or value given to members of the military.

While I agree that contractors are often subjected to cartoonish stereotypes like the ones mentioned above, I respectfully disagree on the question of whether or not they should be accorded the same respect given to our fallen servicemen. Contractors are active not just in Iraq and Afghanistan but all over the world in environments where the U.S. military is not present. They often work for large, transnational corporations which negotiate contracts to provide certain services and then reimburse their workers with financial incentives in league with the difficulty and danger of those services. While contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan may be great patriots (and are often veterans themselves), they find themselves conducting operations there and elsewhere working for for-profit corperations. That's a lot different than a kid in 2-22nd Infantry on patrol in Paktia Province or wherever. So, sorry -- circumstances matter. And while the U.S. military cannot do its job without the support -- especially the logistical and engineering support -- provided by expeditionary contractors like KBR and Bechtel, those individual contractors should not be honored in the same way we honor our nation's fallen soldiers and sailors.

Second, Paul Farnan has a nice apology (in the classical sense of the word) for General David McKiernan:

Over the past year, I have seen our focus in Afghanistan shift from kinetic military operations to one of engaging the population, building the capacity of the Afghan government, and ensuring that the military's top priority is the training and mentoring of the Afghan army and police. Integrated strategic planning with the United Nations and the Afghan government is now the rule rather than the exception, as it was when McKiernan arrived last June. The general has traveled around the country and has held countless forums, known as shuras, with Afghans in various localities. He has engaged local and provincial leaders one on one to hear their concerns and ensure that they understood the intentions of the international coalition. All of our Special Forces operations combined cannot win the support of the Afghan people the way these shuras do. [AM: And to whom is that remark directed toward?] ...

This struggle is not about killing insurgents. We have killed more insurgents than we can count over the past seven years and have moved no closer to victory by doing so. This struggle is about the Afghan population. Afghans must believe that their government will provide them greater security and opportunity for prosperity than the insurgency will. We are not naive; we know that military operations must continue and that some people must be killed -- but under McKiernan a more holistic approach to winning the peace has been our focus.

This is great, if it is true, and I have no reason not to believe Mr. Farnan. As my readership has heard me say on this blog and on various mainstream media, a perception had grown that McKiernan did not "get" counterinsurgency warfare. This may be unfair. And again, as I said on NPR and the Rachel Maddow Show and elsewhere, it appears as if General McKiernan was not so much a bad general -- he actually seems to have been quite competent -- as just not the right guy for the specific job. Or maybe not the guy that Secretary Gates and General Petraeus felt would either win the war as fast as they needed to see progress toward that end or with whom they did not feel as comfortable working as with General McChrystal. I don't know. But I do know this: as excited as I was and am to see a real sense of urgency about Afghanistan, and as excited I was to see a certain ruthlessness in President Obama, Secretary Gates, and General Petraeus, I also have a tinge of sadness: General McKiernan was hard done by, and I think the U.S. Army officer corps and most commenters recognize that unless he was guilty of some kind of insubordination we do not know about, then his relief could have been handled in classier way by all parties.