Tag Archives: Iraq War

“Counter Jihad – America’s Military Experience in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria” by Brian Glen Williams

319 pages, plus preface, notes and index. Three good maps of Afghanistan, but none of Iraq and Syria. University of Pennsylvania Press.

I have so much to say about this book! First of all, the copyright date is 2017. What’s with that? For the record, I got the book from the library’s new arrival shelf. Amazon reports it as being published in October of 2016. Citations include information as recent as April, 2016. This book is about as up to date as a hardcover publication can be.

The first and last chapters of this book are the most important. Chapter 1 (Planting the Seeds for a Global Conflict) covers crucial history of the Middle East, much of which is unfamiliar to me. There’s so much detail, I had to take an occasional break from reading. Williams obviously intends to be fair and even-handed. Can anyone achieve this? Language poses so many pitfalls. Consider the ways one can announce multiple deaths:

  • Murder
  • Killing
  • Massacre
  • Cold blooded massacre
  • Slaughter
  • Execution

How does an author decide? “Cold blooded” was the term that made me pause, since it describes a state of mind. The whole point of this book is to let us know how little we understand the “state of mind”, the history, culture, languages, customs, etc., of the Middle East.

Enough quibbling. Williams works hard to be fair, and is well worth reading.

The events of Chapter 2 (the invasion of Afghanistan right after 9/11) were mostly news to me. Where WAS I while all this was going on? How did I miss so much?! Two youngsters at home, one getting ready for college… I caught a bit of news here and there. So Chapter 2 was an eye opener. What stood out?

  • That we fought the kind of high tech, “precision” war that (I think) the military has been hoping for.
  • That we had some unusual allies, including a tribal warlord with troops on horseback.
  • That women (for the first time?) adopted the mostly male military model to defend themselves and their land against Taliban religious oppression. One such woman, Niloorfar Ramani, a highly trained Afghan fighter pilot, is currently seeking asylum in the US because of cultural biases in her country of birth.

I skimmed over Chapter 3 (Hype: Selling the War on Iraq to the American People) because I knew the bad news. We were conned.

Chapter 4 (The Invasion and Occupation of Iraq) was also basically familiar. The unexpected wrinkle for me was to learn that General David Petraeus, who led some of the Iraq War’s most successful counterinsurgency fighting, to some extent ignored the orders of Coalition Provisional Authority governor Paul Bremer to fire all members of the Baathist Party from their jobs. This destroyed Iraq’s civil government. Bremer also mandated the disbanding of the Iraqi army. This left about half a million men “armed and unemployed”. Petraeus evidently managed some level of compromise, and he engaged (with considerable success) in the type of “nation building” that Bush and his closest advisors scorned. Petraeus also codified the “take, hold, build” model for counterinsurgency. We may eventually look back on him as much more than a general who made a mistake and was forced into retirement. Bremer’s occupation policies already look like a total disaster with consequences that could last generations. And I believe he was warned at the time, most particularly by the military.

The last two chapters of Williams’ book bring us to the present and distinguish ISIS from its predecessors. The extremist call to generalized violence against “non-believers” has borne bitter fruit. Most recent was the bombing of a “Christmas Mart” in Berlin, in which 12 people died and 56 were injured.

ISIS now controls territory and aspires to the status of a state. Potential jihadis, some radicalized by the social media, travel to areas of ISIS control. Their return to their homelands with plans for independent violence is a very serious concern. By late 2015, it was estimated that as many as 30,000 “volunteers” from 90 countries may be in this pipeline. The FBI describes some of the attacks in the USA as “homegrown terrorism”, and calls for a “new approach” to Homeland Security, but there is no clarity about what preventive measures can be taken.

This is a sobering book, but if you, like me, want to know what’s going on and how your tax dollars are being used in the implementation of foreign policy, I suggest you read it.

Book choices in the public schools – personal history (2)

Entirely by accident and quite to my surprise, I found (on my computer) the reply I received from my son’s teacher when I “intervened” in the matter of a book that my son was assigned to read for school. So now I know the details I left out of my post dated March 5, 2015.

Here’s some context: Due to a medical catastrophe, my son missed several months of school at the beginning of 7th grade. He resumed classes gradually, and I was at the school daily, since he couldn’t ride the bus. I was much more aware of his classroom experience than before. My heightened level of involvement continued for several years.

The book I challenged was Night by Elie Wiesel. I had not read it. I still have not read it.

It is described on Amazon.com as “a candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps.” It includes “a litany of the daily terrors, everyday perversions, and rampant sadism at Auschwitz and Buchenwald”. There is nothing to suggest that this is a book for younger readers.

So… who decided this belonged in 7th grade, being read by 12 year olds? Is the average middle school teacher of language arts equipped to teach it? What kind of support does a 12 year old need when being introduced to the Holocaust? Any group of 12 year olds has vulnerable members, some not recognized as such. And, as I mentioned in my earlier post, local families were experiencing troop deployment, the early mobilization for the Iraq War.

My son’s teacher and her supervisor kindly substituted other reading matter for the class.

Another book had apparently triggered my watchful radar – Deathwatch by Robb White. At least it was intended for the Young Adult audience. It received an American Library Association award. Amazon describes it as “An exciting novel of suspense, based on a fight to the finish between an honest and courageous young man and a cynical business tycoon.” Even assuming that “finish” means death, at least the reader is spared perversion and sadism. It was selected for the Battle of the Books, an activity about which I remember nothing. Evidently I agreed my son could read the book, or perhaps he had already done so. I don’t recall any further discussion.

So… was I right to get involved when I did? I’m not big on censorship or banning books, but a 12 year old is not an adult. What do you think?

“Generation Kill” by Evan Wright – America’s Wars #4

This book, published in 2004 and read by me in 2009, is subtitled “Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and the New Face of American War”.

A narrative by an embedded journalist is very different from a journal like that of Richard Engel (see blog post of November 15, 2013). Wright was thoroughly embedded. I don’t know what news service he represented. There nothing about any communication with the outside world during his time with the troops. Most of what he says is very specific and detailed.

Then he annoyingly drops one big generalization, which I paraphrase here:

“This is America’s first generation of disposable children. Raised by absent single parents, their computer games etc. are more real to them than any human relationship.”

Wright does not further expand or explain.

How can I mesh this with the recent on-line assertions that the “millenials” are America’s most wanted children ever and were raised with annoying attitudes of entitlement and dangerous levels of narcissism? (OK, so I can’t. America is too multifaceted for either of these generalizations.)

Does Wright think no one MINDS the deaths of these soldiers? I beg to differ. Few parents are “absent” by choice. Even imperfect parents grieve for their children. I don’t think anyone is casual about the risks inherent in military service.

This book should be taken with some skepticism. There are many, many military memoirs available.

I consulted Amazon.com for more information and reviews of Generation Kill. The reviews are all over the map, with a slant towards being favorable. Some soldiers consider the book to be misinformed slander. One specifically commented that military officers are rarely as incompetent as Wright portrays them to be. 

That said, I recommend the book. I know little about military life and combat experience. Generation Kill gave me a look at the daily life of soldiers.

America’s Wars #3 – “Baghdad at Sunrise – a Brigade Commander’s War in Iraq” by Peter Mansoor

I read this book in July of 2009, and wrote the following:

This book deals with the first year of the war – summer, winter (such as it was) and summer. I had some trouble reading it but couldn’t really figure out why. Subconsciously, I think I expect any narrative to tell a story (beginning, middle, end) which this does not. This was “real life”, closer to a journal or diary.

The military language Mansoor uses is choppy and filled with acronyms. He felt no obligation to remind the reader of the identity of a person or organization. Maps and a list of acronyms were provided, but not a chart of military organization. I didn’t always know who was the superior officer, nor did I know the size of the unit in which a soldier lives.

Mansoor gives a brief historical analysis (p 351) which leads to a definition of Western Civilization as a policy of religious tolerance and an agreement that “the state should have a monopoly on the use of organized violence.” This is from the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648.

I found another interesting comment at the end of the book (p 347). “As the US undertook an intensive campaign of math and science education following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, so must it now pursue excellence in humanities programs such as languages, history, cultural anthropology and regional studies.”

2013 comments: I am one of those “Sputnik scientists”, encouraged from elementary school and treated, in high school, to the best teachers and some interesting innovative curricula. This overlapped with my natural inclinations and I got a very good education. Now “science” has been recast as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Hard for me to say how it’s going.

My sons (in a local public high school from 1998 to 2008) didn’t get good science training, and neither has pursued a scientific field. Standardized testing has done so much damage. Science doesn’t show up on the tests, nor do languages or history, so the teachers in those fields don’t get the support they need. Science and math are often taught by people who don’t much LIKE those subject areas.

As far as a comprehensive effort to teach languages and regional studies, I’m not seeing it. Language teaching barely holds its own and in some school districts it is diminishing. Ironically, if you choose to study Arabic in college and the airport screeners find your textbook, you can subjected to questioning as a possible terrorist. We’ve got a large backlog of educational issues that need attention!

“America’s Wars” #1 – “War Journal – My Five Years in Iraq” by Richard Engel

This book (published in 2008) starts in 2002 or 2003, when Engel entered Iraq before the war began, intending to wait out the early “shock and awe” stage, which I think he assumed would promptly lead to the fall of Saddam Hussein and regime change. He expected to witness to the most exciting event of the decade.

Engel was (and is) courageous to the point of recklessness. It was no surprise to learn that his marriage ended during his time in Iraq. Engel is a highly credentialed journalist (ABC and NBC) and speaks Arabic. He was working freelance when he decided to enter Iraq and await the invasion.

Engel discusses “war porn”. I think he means images and anecdotes that are true, shocking and add nothing new or significant to anyone’s understanding. The most descriptive word is “gratuitous”. I have encountered that kind of “porn” in other places, even in fiction. I won’t recommend “World Made By Hand” to anyone, despite its interesting plot premise. I threw it in the trash, a very rare fate for any book that passes through my hands.

Engel wrote another book about Iraq and reported as well on Afghanistan and the Arab Spring. In 2012, he and his news crew were kidnapped and held for five days (according to Wikipedia), an experience Engel wrote about in Vanity Fair. I hope he stays alive and keeps writing.