Robert Gates’s memoir is all set to be released and The Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward got himself a copy. Unfortunately, Woodward’s account of the book is as flawed and overly simplified as, er, Woodward’s own books about the Obama administration. Here is Woodward:
Leveling one of the more serious charges that a defense secretary could make against a commander in chief sending forces into combat, Gates asserts that Obama had more than doubts about the course he had charted in Afghanistan. The president was “skeptical if not outright convinced it would fail,” Gates writes in “Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.”
Read that again. According to Woodward, it is a serious charge against a president to say that he had doubts about the “course he had charted.” Since the same author wrote three increasingly critical books about a certain former president who never expressed the slightest doubts about disastrous policy choices, you would think Woodward might know better. Apparently not.
In contrast, here is how The New York Times‘s Thom Shanker, who also managed to get a copy of the book, writes about the same subject:
In a new memoir, Mr. Gates, a Republican holdover from the Bush administration who served for two years under Mr. Obama, praises the president as a rigorous thinker who frequently made decisions “opposed by his political advisers or that would be unpopular with his fellow Democrats.” But Mr. Gates says that by 2011, Mr. Obama began expressing his own criticism of the way his strategy in Afghanistan was playing out.
This makes the same point, but in a less judgemental way. And here is Gates himself:
“As I sat there, I thought: The president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his,” Mr. Gates writes. “For him, it’s all about getting out.”
I don’t have a copy of Gates book, but as far as I can tell, Gates is not saying whether the president is right or wrong to feel these things, i.e. whether he was motivated by the realities of the situation. But there is a clue—one that Woodward reports lower in the article:
Gates’s severe criticism is even more surprising — some might say contradictory — because toward the end of “Duty,” he says of Obama’s chief Afghanistan policies, “I believe Obama was right in each of these decisions.”
Huh? This acknowledgment leaves Woodward’s opening paragraphs looking nearly incomprehensible.
Woodward does go on to mention a few areas where Gates really does seem mad: “I felt he had breached faith with me…on the budget numbers,” Gates writes of Obama.
On Afghanistan, though—where there is plenty to criticize in the White House’s approach—the judgement feels more like Woodward’s than Gates’s. It wouldn’t be the first time that Woodward showed a strong dislike for the president, and allowed his opinions to get ahead of the facts.
By: Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, January 9, 2014
“The Vets We Reject And Ignore”: Leave No Fallen Comrade Behind Applies At Home And To All Veterans, Regardless Of “Bad Paper”
Today, we honor the nation’s 22 million veterans, including more than 2.5 million who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other fronts in the war against Al Qaeda. But we are turning our backs on hundreds of thousands of veterans who were discharged “under conditions other than honorable” and so do not qualify as veterans under federal law.
Their discharges, which include overly broad categories encompassing everything from administrative discharges for minor misconduct to dishonorable discharges following a court-martial, nevertheless make them ineligible for the health care, employment, housing and education benefits offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Because of the “bad paper” they carry in the form of their discharge certificates, many of these veterans struggle upon leaving the military. And when they falter, the burden for supporting them falls heavily on their local communities because federal agencies cannot, by law, help them.
No federal agency publishes the numbers of bad paper discharges. But historical studies suggest that at least several hundred thousand veterans fall into this category. Approximately 260,000 of the 8.7 million Vietnam-era veterans were pushed out of the service with bad paper. More recently, according to documents separately obtained by the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Army discharged 76,165 soldiers between 2006 and 2012 with bad paper. Of these recent Army discharges, only one in seven were kicked out following a criminal conviction for a serious offense. The rest were discharged for smaller breaches of military discipline like missing duty or abusing alcohol or drugs. For many of them, their misconduct was likely related to the stresses of war.
Instead of showing compassion for these troops who were carrying the invisible wounds of war, their commanders kicked them out. These troops’ getting pushed out under such circumstances would be enough of a blow, but these commanders compounded the injury by giving them bad paper, instead of merely administratively separating them from the service.
While assessing the needs of veterans in the Western United States, my research team met with community leaders and nonprofit agency staff members in seven cities with the largest populations of veterans, and interviewed others in outlying cities and rural areas as well. Across these communities, veterans with bad paper were believed to be significantly overrepresented in the at-risk veterans populations. All too frequently these veterans become part of the nation’s chronically homeless or incarcerated populations.
When they end up in distress or on the streets, their communities must bear this burden alone.
We have a moral obligation to those who serve, especially those who serve us in combat. At times, the military must discharge those who can’t perform or conform. However, commanders should exercise far greater discretion and compassion in trimming the ranks. Bad discharges indelibly mark veterans as damaged goods and cost society a great deal too.
Congress should also allow the V.A. to more broadly provide mental health care, homelessness support and other forms of crisis intervention to veterans with bad paper. The V.A. has case-by-case authority to do so now, but that does not help veterans with bad paper who have acute needs. A more compassionate policy would not diminish the military’s ability to maintain discipline, nor would it cheapen the valor of those who have served honorably.
The military has a process to fix bad paper, but that process takes too much time, and veterans often need legal help to prevail in an incredibly bureaucratic and difficult process.
The story of John Shepherd Jr., who earned a Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam but was kicked out after disobeying an order to return to combat after developing severe post-traumatic stress disorder, shows how difficult these cases can be. Mr. Shepherd went without V.A. support for 40 years until a team of students and lawyers at Yale Law School helped him correct his record this month.
Excellent programs exist to help veterans in such cases, but they deserve more resources. Small investments in pro bono legal services can help unlock a lifetime of access to the V.A. and help the neediest veterans with bad paper move on with their lives.
Finally, the veterans community should do more to lift up those veterans who have been discharged with bad paper, particularly in those cases where combat experience lies at the heart of the bad discharge. The American military ethos calls on all of us to leave no fallen comrade behind. That applies at home, too, and to all veterans, regardless of whether they carry bad paper.
By: Phillip Carter, Op-Ed Contributor, Opinion Pages, The New York Times, November 10, 2013
“Truly Essential Government Services”: Military Death Benefits, The Shutdown And The Importance Of Government
It gives a tragic new meaning to the term “death tax.” Families whose sons, daughters, husbands, wives and parents lost their lives in Afghanistan are now being denied the benefits traditionally given to defray the cost of funerals and travel costs to retrieve the remains. The funding cutoff, first reported by NBC News, is due to the government shutdown, which has stopped all but “essential” government services.
The House is set to pass a special bill restoring that cash. It’s unclear what the Senate will do. While expenditures involving the troops – especially fallen troops – are sacrosanct to lawmakers in both parties, Democrats have been loath to approve what they view as a GOP policy of releasing one hostage at a time while politicians fight over whether and how to reopen the government.
But the gut-wrenching impact on military families does serve one purpose. It reminds people of what their government does.
The understandable discontent with Washington has ballooned into a disgust with government of any kind, and a rejection of anything that has the word “government” attached to it. And it’s easy to point to government programs that may be bloated or outdated, or regulations that may do more harm than good.
But government programs are not just the big things – Social Security and national defense, for example – or even the smaller, but more controversial things, such as foreign aid or food stamps. It’s stuff like death benefits for families who have lost loved ones in conflicts they had nothing to do with authorizing. It’s things like payment for the Women, Infants and Children program – something that may be a budget item for those lucky enough not to need it, but which represents a life necessity for poor pregnant women and mothers.
We don’t all benefit directly from every single government program. They’re there because they represent who we are – a nation that cares for its own, whether it’s hungry people or a family who needs to bury a servicemember.
Lawmakers can certainly debate the structure or funding level of such programs; that is, of course, their job. But it’s important to remember that much of what government does seems invisible – not because it’s not working, but because it is working.
Give LIHEAP assistance to low-income people who can’t afford to heat their homes, and it can appear to a hardline fiscal conservative like the aid is not doing any good. But take it away, and have an elderly person freeze to death in her home, and suddenly, the program seems useful. The National Transportation Safety Board might seem like just another government bureaucracy. But when a deadly bus crash occurred in Tennessee, and a Metro worker was killed while doing repair work over the weekend in Washington, D.C., the absence of a functioning NTSB becomes more evident. Sometimes, the value of government programs is the absence of disaster and pain. Military families are just one casualty of trying to function with almost no government at all.
By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, October 9, 2013
When I was a law student in 1982, I escaped torts by backpacking through Syria and taking a public bus to Hama, where the government had suppressed a rebellion by massacring some 20,000 people.
The center of Hama was pulverized into a vast field of rubble interspersed with bits of clothing, yet on the fringe of it stood, astonishingly, a tourism office. The two Syrian officials inside, thrilled to see an apparent tourist, weighed me down with leaflets about sightseeing in Hama and its ancient water wheels. After a bit of small talk, I pointed out the window at the moonscape and asked what had happened.
They peered out at the endless gravel pit.
“Huh?” one said nervously. “I don’t see anything.”
It feels to me a bit as if much of the world is reacting the same way today. The scale of the slaughter may be five times that of 1982, but few are interested in facing up to what is unfolding today out our window in Hama, Homs, Damascus and Aleppo.
As one woman tweeted to me: “We simply cannot stop every injustice in the world by using military weapons.”
Fair enough. But let’s be clear that this is not “every injustice”: On top of the 100,000-plus already killed in Syria, another 5,000 are being slaughtered monthly, according to the United Nations. Remember the Boston Massacre of 1770 from our history books, in which five people were killed? Syria loses that many people every 45 minutes on average, around the clock.
A year ago, by United Nations calculations, there were 230,000 Syrian refugees. Now there are two million.
In other words, while there are many injustices around the world, from Darfur to eastern Congo, take it from one who has covered most of them: Syria is today the world capital of human suffering.
Skeptics are right about the drawbacks of getting involved, including the risk of retaliation. Yet let’s acknowledge that the alternative is, in effect, to acquiesce as the slaughter in Syria reaches perhaps the hundreds of thousands or more.
But what about the United Nations? How about a multilateral solution involving the Arab League? How about peace talks? What about an International Criminal Court prosecution?
All this sounds fine in theory, but Russia blocks progress in the United Nations. We’ve tried multilateral approaches, and Syrian leaders won’t negotiate a peace deal as long as they feel they’re winning on the ground. One risk of bringing in the International Criminal Court is that President Bashar al-Assad would be more wary of stepping down. The United Nations can’t stop the killing in Syria any more than in Darfur or Kosovo. As President Assad himself noted in 2009, “There is no substitute for the United States.”
So while neither intervention nor paralysis is appealing, that’s pretty much the menu. That’s why I favor a limited cruise missile strike against Syrian military targets (as well as the arming of moderate rebels). As I see it, there are several benefits: Such a strike may well deter Syria’s army from using chemical weapons again, probably can degrade the ability of the army to use chemical munitions and bomb civilian areas, can reinforce the global norm against chemical weapons, and — a more remote prospect — may slightly increase the pressure on the Assad regime to work out a peace deal.
If you’re thinking, “Those are incremental, speculative and highly uncertain gains,” well, you’re right. Syria will be bloody whatever we do.
Mine is a minority view. After the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the West is bone weary and has little interest in atrocities unfolding in Syria or anywhere else. Opposition to missile strikes is one of the few issues that ordinary Democrats and Republicans agree on.
“So we’re bombing Syria because Syria is bombing Syria?” Sarah Palin wrote, in a rare comment that liberals might endorse. Her suggestion: “Let Allah sort it out.”
More broadly, pollsters are detecting a rise in isolationism. The proportion of Americans who say that “the U.S. should mind its own business internationally” has been at a historic high in recent years.
A Pew survey this year asked voters to rate 19 government expenses, and the top two choices for budget cuts were “aid to the world’s needy” and the State Department. (In fact, 0.5 percent of the budget goes to the world’s needy, and, until recently, the military had more musicians in its bands than the State Department had diplomats.)
When history looks back on this moment, will it view those who opposed intervening as champions of peace? Or, when the textbooks count the dead children, and the international norms broken with impunity, will our descendants puzzle that we took pride in retreating into passivity during this slaughter?
Isn’t this a bit like the idealists who embraced the Kellogg-Briand Pact that banned war 85 years ago? Sure, that made people feel good. But it may also have encouraged the appeasement that ultimately cost lives in World War II.
O.K., so I’ve just added fuel to the battle for analogies. For now, the one that has caught on is Iraq in 2003. But considering that no one is contemplating boots on the ground, a more relevant analogy in Iraq may be the 1998 Operation Desert Fox bombing of Iraqi military sites by President Bill Clinton. It lasted a few days, and some say it was a factor in leading Iraq to give up W.M.D. programs; others disagree.
THAT murkiness is not surprising. To me, the lessons of history in this area are complex and conflicting, offering no neat formula to reach peace or alleviate war. In most cases, diplomacy works best. But not always. When Yugoslavia was collapsing into civil war in the early 1990s, early efforts at multilateral diplomacy delayed firm action and led to a higher body count.
Some military interventions, as in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, have worked well. Others, such as Iraq in 2003, worked very badly. Still others, such as Libya, had mixed results. Afghanistan and Somalia were promising at first but then evolved badly.
So, having said that analogies aren’t necessarily helpful, let me leave you with a final provocation.
If we were fighting against an incomparably harsher dictator using chemical weapons on our own neighborhoods, and dropping napalm-like substances on our children’s schools, would we regard other countries as “pro-peace” if they sat on the fence as our dead piled up?
By: Nicholas D. Kristof, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, September 7, 2013
Perhaps the most misleading phrase in the debate over Syria is “war weary.” Americans, say commentators and politicians across the political spectrum, are exhausted by a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, with sideshows in Libya and Yemen. Now Syria? Where does it stop? Americans must be weary.
Of exactly what?
The truth is that for most Americans, the constant combat has imposed no burdens, required no sacrifices and involved no disruptions. True, the money spent has been substantial. From 2001 to 2012, reckons the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with related operations cost $1.4 trillion. Although that’s a lot even by Washington standards, it pales next to all federal spending and the economy’s total production. From 2001 to 2012, federal spending totaled $33.3 trillion; the wars were 4 percent of that. Over the same period, the American economy produced $163 trillion of goods and services. War spending equaled nine-tenths of 1 percent of that.
As important, no special tax was ever imposed to pay war costs. They were simply added to budget deficits, so that few, if any, Americans suffered a loss of income. It’s doubtful that much other government spending was crowded out by the wars.
The largest cost, of course, involves Americans killed and those who suffered life-altering wounds, both physical and mental. As of Sept. 3, the Pentagon counted 4,489 deaths connected to the war in Iraq and 2,266 connected to the war in Afghanistan, including some U.S. civilians. To these numbers must be added thousands more with serious injuries. Through September 2011, according to the CBO, 740,000 veterans from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan had received treatment from the Veterans Health Administration. In a study of veterans treated from 2004 to 2009, the CBO found that 21 percent were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, 2 percent with traumatic brain injury and another 5 percent with both.
The pain, suffering, sorrow and anguish of these and other losses are borne by a tiny sliver of Americans: those who joined the volunteer military, plus their families and close friends. There was no draft. There was no shared sacrifice, as there was in World War II, Korea and (to a lesser extent) even Vietnam. Those who have made the sacrifices have a right to feel “weary.” For the rest of us, it’s a self-indulgence.
What many Americans seem to mean by “weary” is “frustrated.” They’re frustrated and disillusioned that so much fighting over so many years has not brought the clear-cut psychological and strategic benefits of “victory.” For others, the lesson is more stark: These foreign military forays were a waste and, in many respects, have done more harm than good. One way or another, there’s a widespread impatience with our engagements when patience is often required for success.
If it is to be useful, the debate over Syria must broach larger issues. The United States cannot be the world’s policeman. It cannot rectify every wrong or redress every atrocity. It cannot impose the “American way of life” and values on diverse peoples who have their own ways of life and values. But the United States isn’t Monaco. Since World War II, we have assumed a sizable responsibility for the international order. We have done this not so much out of idealism as out of self-interest. The large lesson of that war was that American absence from the global stage ultimately contributed to a global tragedy from which we could not remain aloof.
This lesson endures. But it lacks a firm footing in public opinion. Members of the World War II generation have largely died. Their experience is now an abstraction. The new applications of an old doctrine often suffer from carelessness and expedience — sometimes too much eagerness, sometimes too little. We do have overriding interests in a stable global order. To state an obvious case: It cannot be in our interests (or the world’s) for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.
Whatever we do in Syria must spring from a sober calculation of national interest so that it commands broad public support. The worst outcome would be a retreat justified by nothing more than an exaggerated and artificial sense of “war weariness.”
By: Robert Samuelson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 4, 2013