‘We Are Winning,' Two Wars, Two Colonels, and a General

Bffw-0128-feature-y Dick Bennett

The importance of replying to the glorification of warriors and war in the profiles initiated by Warren Stephens of the Stephens chain of newspapers seems clear to me.

The series was prefaced by: “…on this Sunday before Veterans Day 2009, the newspapers and Web sites of Stephens Media are privileged and humbled to begin a 54-part series that tells the stories of heroism and bravery by the men and women in the United States Armed Forces.”

And beginning on January 18, 2010, the Stephens Media commenced 12 additional Salutes to American Valor.

Any reply to this is complicated in the U.S. National Security State by official and popular dislike of even seeming to criticize “the troops” in the middle of a war. It is difficult even to ask, why does our society so easily accept the killing of young men in wars? Why do people believe that the death of young men, particularly in wars of questionable legality and morality, is acceptable?

Of course, with the U. S. engaged virtually in permanent war ever since Pearl Harbor, now fighting two wars (combining Afghanistan and Pakistan) and beginning a third front in Yemen, and our government and so many of the public in favor of a “surge” in the Afghan war, little time or opportunity has existed when the troops were not engaged that would allow pondering critical questions.

My first response was to suggest in a letter to friends what Stephens’ 54 page-one, snapshot, adrenaline-charged war stories signify for a country whose leaders deny being militaristic or imperial, and who make the killings and woundings sacredly patriotic through glorious medals: Medal of Honor, the Silver Star.

In that writing I called upon Mr. Stephens to publish an alternative series of page-one profiles about nonviolent U. S. peacemakers, naming two prominent opponents of war whose birthdays were approaching.

My second approach here compares a smiling, cheerleading newspaper report of a U.S. battalion commander in Afghanistan to the equally optimistic U.S. battalion commander central to a new book about the Iraq war, but the book adds contexts of experiences over a period of 18 months necessary for understanding and evaluation. Gen. Petraeus appears in both stories, and again the contexts provide all the difference.

Here are the two stories:

Lt. Col. Gukeisen in Afghanistan

Associated Press writer Denis Gray tells about Lt. Col. Thomas Gukeisen’s (and General Petraeus’) success in counterinsurgent warfare (COIN) in Afghanistan.

Combat, his commanding officer says, is based upon good information and killing the enemy (eradicating “Taliban” fighters.” I enclosed “Taliban” in quotation marks because they are not unity but rather Pashtun tribesmen resisting occupation for numerous reasons, from the victims of invader ignorance, insensitivity and violence to advocates of extreme sharia law, and some mujahideen linked to al-Qaeda.

COIN, in contrast, involves changing hearts and minds, a phrase familiar from the Viet Nam War. Gukeisen describes it as “graduate level warfare,” the soldier as innovative “scholar and statesman” able to think outside the box.”

Higher ups in U. S. Afghan military command all the way to Gen. Petraeus, liking his 600 soldiers’ fighting expertise and his COIN ideas, gave him $850,000 in small bills for such jobs as building schools and buying rugs for mosques.

Combining effective combat with counterintelligence measures, Lt. Col. Gukeisen was developing “security bubbles,” in which life can improve and will, he hopes, draw in “the rest of the districts.” As the result of his methods, Gukeisen claims, “nearly half of the 400,000” of three districts and half of one in his area of operations (AO) “are within the bubble,” and violence of all kinds “dropped by 60 percent while intelligence from locals about the insurgents has soared by 80 percent.”

Lt. Col. Gukeisan, though he “looks forward to being back with his wife and son” after two tours, is also “reluctant to leave things uncompleted” and would “’like to be here another year.’”

Sounds promising, but let’s inquire a bit. Is his success, “success”? Is the rosy picture convincing?.

He omits the facts of Afghan life. Despite the billions spent fighting in Afghanistan, the quality of Afghan life has not improved. For examples: more than a quarter of Afghan children die before the age of five; life expectancy for women is just over 43 years, and for men under 43; 87 percent of Afghans have no access to clean water; infant mortality is the third highest in the world; 70 percent of the population is undernourished. And if you supported the war because you thought it would improve the lives of women, and your mind was not changed by the statistics just given, read “A Woman Among Warlords” by Malali Joya, who argues that the invasion and occupation have worsened the lives of women, and the surge will only magnify their suffering.

Gray omits U.N. data on civilian deaths, that numerous commentators consider the main cause of Afghan resistance. The United Nations says more civilians were killed in 2009 than any other year since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001. According to the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, more than 400 died in 2009, a 14 percent increase from 2008.

“Taliban”-linked attacks accounted for the “vast majority” of the casualties, a “Taliban” responding to the foreign occupation. Also, a report showed 3,000 civilians died in violent attacks in Pakistan last year as the result of the Pakistan army’s major assaults on large areas of its own country in response to U. S. demands and paid for by the U.S.

Gray also does not report the frightening and debilitating effects of brutal military culture and war on insecure and aggressive young men trained to kill. In “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society” about Vietnam War veterans, Dave Grossman, Lt. Col. (Ret.), presents three important hypotheses: 1) That humans possess the reluctance to kill their own kind; 2) that this reluctance can be systematically broken down by use of standard conditioning techniques (basic training); and 3) that the reaction of “normal” (e.g., non-psychopathic) soldiers to having killed in close combat can be best understood as a series of stages. This systematic examination of the individual soldier’s behavior leads to a series of useful explanations for a variety of phenomena, such as the high rate of post traumatic stress disorders among veterans and the climbing rate of aggravated assault.

A recent, intense insight into these consequences is provided by the book, “Murder in Baker Company” and the film, independent of the book, “In the Valley of Elah.” The book reveals the four young men who were likely the murderers of their fellow soldier as scarred by war and two of them as victims of both the effects of war and socio-economic factors beyond their control, including their company’s participation in the April 2003 Midtown Massacre in Baghdad, where U.S. troops gunned down more than 100 supposed enemy combatants, many of them unarmed and likely civilians.

And Gray omits the reality of the countrywide growing insurgency. Finally, Gray depends mostly upon Lt. Col. Gukeisen’s testimony. There seems no reason to doubt his veracity beyond the normal desire to look good to superiors. But we can wonder how he reached his statistics of 60 and 80 percent.

And the Colonel himself-doesn’t know whether his COIN methods can be a model for the rest of Afghanistan. ‘Each [Area of Operation]…is different.’”

Also, we can wish the reporter had probed the Colonel’s graduate level knowledge of the purported success of the “security bubbles” in counterinsurgency history, by which towns and cities are secured and the countryside abandoned to the insurgents.

For example, Barbara Bick in her book on the rise of the “Taliban” refers to the northern Afghan city of Faizabad during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan defended by 6,000 Soviet troops but ultimately abandoned to the Afghans. Bick describes the Afghans as “ultimately unconquerable.” And recalling the failure of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan reminds us that the Afghans who received Lt. Col. Gukeisen’s $850,000 were those “who turn against the Taliban”; that is, mainly those who cooperate with the U.S. and turn against their fellow Pashtuns who oppose the occupation enough to actively resist it, or in the Colonel’s estimate, nearly half the people in three districts of his AO and half in the fourth. The gifts may have only superficial results. And reflect a moment upon the possible corruption that might result from the availability, if not to Gukeisen and his officers then to others, of three-quarters of a million dollars in small bills, even for an upright officer like Gukeisen.

But analysis of Gray’s article advances us only a little toward understanding the real nature of the “success” of the occupation. A book written about the Iraq occupation, however, provides the contexts needed. Are we winning?

Lt. Colonel Kauzlarich in Iraq

The questions raised by Gray’s account of apparently the best battalion-size counterinsurgency operation in Afghanistan in 2009 are multiplied when one reads the book-length story of a similar operation in Iraq in 2007, David Finkel’s “The Good Soldiers,” whose commander, Lt. Col. Kauzlarich, is very like Lt. Col. Gukeisen.

Finkel spent eight months with the battalion in Iraq, and interviewed the wounded at their various hospitals in the U.S. He doesn’t claim to have been present at every scene he describes, but when he was not, “the details, descriptions, and dialogue” were verified. Everyone who talked with him knew it was on the record.

When we first meet him, Kauzlarich is equally confident and optimistic. His favorite, frequently repeated words are: “It’s all good” and “We’re winning.”

He is physically brave, conscientious and intellectually innovative. But whereas Gukeisen and his Afghan war appear simple, rational, and orderly (combat is using reliable intelligence to kill the enemy), Kauzlarich and his Iraqi war and world are violent, fearful, complicated, multi-layered, in motion, and unhinging. We see him in the many contexts of his commander role, from the horrendous violence of unpredictable combat to his relations with Iraqis to reflections on counterinsurgency.

Interspersed with mortar attacks on their base, the IED bombs and EFP projectiles against their vehicles on patrol, the snipers, we learn what he thinks of himself, and what his subordinates think of him (“lost Kauz”). Inside the killing zone patrols and mortar and bomb attacks on his base, Kauzlarich is far from the tidy, ostensible progress of Gukeisen as described from the outside by reporter Gray.

The juxtaposition of shifting contexts is a chief method by which Finkel reveals his character. Gradually, as experiences multiply and unfold, Gen. Petraeus’ static, recruiting poster-boy Gukeisen becomes the real life Kauzlarich, and as success becomes “success” we discover the gulf between Washington’s view of the war and the soldiers’ experience of it. We experience too the gap between Kauzlarich’s belief in winning, progress, and ultimate good and the experience of combat and the Iraqis he intends to protect within his armed bubble, to develop with his own caches of cash, and to train into a new army.

Not only did Gen. Petraeus visit Gukeisen’s sector, but also did Gen. McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Liking what they heard, they gave him truckloads of cash. And by Gray’s report, all did seem good; they did seem to be winning. Lt. Col. Gukeisen wanted a third tour. And Kauzlarich?

Lt. Col. Kauzlarich received money too, lots of it, from money to buy trash cans to big money for a sewage system.

One of the comic cultural contrasts of the story, within the over-arching narrative of frequent peril, occurs when Kauzlarich tries to explain to the local civil manager the purpose of garbage cans. The man counters every suggestion with a story about the conditions of life there or the cultural traditions that made the colonel’s suggestion futile.

But more often, Kauzlarich encountered people who wanted the money for their own use-to buy a car, to buy a pistol, paint, walls, electricity, TVs. He was frequently exasperated, particularly since so many projects were sidetracked, but persistent.

And Gen. Petraeus also visited Lt. Col. Kauzlarich’s area of operation. And like Lt. Col. Gukeisen, he described his achievements and especially his plans to the General.

Of course, neither said anything about failures. “One leadership lesson he’d absorbed well was the importance of knowing what to leave out of a conversation. There was no point, for instance, in describing the three dying faces of one battle” or “the weird search on the roadway for the correct number of severed limbs.” Keep the eye on the ball of victory. Don’t talk about the killed, wounded, wrecked. Tell about improvements. Praise the past week free of combat. Select his words carefully: congratulate the people of his area “on a job well done as far as security goes,” instead of more accurately saying: congratulate the people “for not trying to kill him and his soldiers for seven entire days in a row.” Tell the General “who had mesmerized Washington” how, “without seeming to brag,” his soldiers were using covert information-gathering technologies and its own “fusion-cell” to track insurgents down (good intelligence to kill the enemy, though not demonstrated in Finkel’s narrative).

Tell Gen. Petraeus (sitting only inches away) about his growing relationship with the District Council (not corroborated) and with one colonel of the Iraqi National Police (a fact). Tell him of his hopes to finish the $30 million sewer system (stalled by corruption) and to develop an adult literacy program in local schools (even though many schools had been ransacked and closed) to reduce the 50 perecent illiteracy (although he could not monitor the $82,500 project because “participants said they feared being killed if Americans were present”).

And Gen. Petraeus was pleased: “Great. That’s super.” And after more self-congratulatory reports (the protection of fuel stations from insurgent control) he said: “Well, you guys keep up the terrific work,” posed for photographs, put his arm around Kauzlarich’s shoulders (who “looked the happiest he’d looked in a long time”), and flew off in his helicopter.

Immediately, Kauzlarich welcomes new troops to replace his killed and wounded. It was “the good day,” he said, “It’s all good.”

And then he hears a great explosion, in the direction of the fuel stations. A call comes in that the platoon guarding the station was returning with wounded. At the aid station, he finds one Humvee destroyed by an EFP projectile, two soldiers crying, and another kicking another Humvee, “’Fucking war,’” says Kauzlarich, following a trail of blood inside.

Joshua Reeves, 26 years old, in the “failing moments of his life, wasn’t breathing, his eyes weren’t moving, his left foot was gone, his backside was ripped open, his face had turned gray, his stomach was filling with blood,” and then his buddies sent word that he had learned that day that his wife “had just given birth to their first child.”

“Jesus,” Kauzlarich replies, “his eyes filling with tears as he watched another soldier dying in front of him.”

The good Gen. Petraeus fulfilled his reputation as a motivator. Back at his office, Kauzlarich had received an e-mail: “Your many initiatives, such as securing the gas stations,” and so on listing the colonel’s accomplishments. “You guys are making big progress.”

How could Lt. Col. Kauzlarich reply (“as another platoon of soldiers moved into sleeplessness, and a new mother in the United States still waited for [his] phone call”)? He began: “’It was our pleasure,” the General’s visit “an absolute highlight of our deployment thus far.” He paused. “Unfortunately,” he typed, as Finkel ends the chapter: “in the truth of that one word, a bad day came to an end.”

And in the ironical truth of the visit of Gen. Petraeus and the death of Joshua Reeves, we glimpse some of the most important realities of wars completely missed by the patriotic, antiseptic newspaper article.

“Some credit Petraeus,” writes Gray admiringly, “with having helped to foster the new breed of officers to tackle counterinsurgency.”

In July 2007, President Bush had said, “I’m optimistic. We’ll succeed unless we lose our nerve.” In September 2007, the President declared to the nation: “We’re kicking ass.”

In fact it is a war of horrifying wounds. According to Dr. Glasser, “amputations are well over 8 percent of those wounded-numbers not seen since our Civil War.” And “the number of traumatic head injuries is well over 30 percent of those wounded.”

By the end of “The Good Soldiers,” still optimistic Lt. Col. Kauzlarich had learned, however, something about “success.” Despite the one million killed Iraqis, the four million displaced, the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows, 50 to 70 percent unemployment, the infrastructure devastated, as he rose up in the helicopter that was to carry him away from Iraq, he shut his eyes: “They had won. He was sure of it. They were the difference. It was all good. But he had seen enough.”

Dick Bennett is a native of Arkansas, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Arkansas, and a founder of the OMNI Center for Peace, Justice and Ecology.

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