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Unforced Errors: The Bane of the American-NATO Campaign in Afghanistan

The Scene at one of the Houses (Reuters: Ahmad Nadeem) 

The efforts of the United States in Afghanistan and chances of coming out with anything resembling a successful conclusion to the longest war in its history are being destroyed by unforced errors. Of course anyone who watches any kind of sporting event knows that there are many times that the team that should win self destructs by committing unforced errors that result in them losing a game. In football they might be penalties, fumbles or badly thrown balls that result in interceptions. In basketball the errant pass, the bad foul, the unforced turnover in baseball the error that costs a game. However in war unforced errors cost precious lives, harm the strategic goals of a nation and lead to greater suffering of the populations affected.

Today we learned that a US Army Staff Sergeant went on a rampage in the Afghan villages near his base in Kandahar killing 15 or 16 Afghan civilians including 9 children and 3 women. The killings were particularly brutal. We don’t know details except that some reports indicate that the sergeant had recently had a breakdown and had deployed at least one other time to Iraq or Afghanistan. I would guess that he had multiple deployments.  The initial reports say that he was assigned to troops supporting a Special Forces team that was working with the local villagers.  Some Afghans say that more than one soldier was involved although NATO says that the soldier acted alone.

The murders come after the accidental burning of a Koran sparked riots and attacks on US and NATO forces killing 6 NATO soldiers including 2 US officers working inside a secure area of the Afghan interior ministry. They also follow the video display of Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban and the trial and conviction of soldiers who had their own killing team. All the incidents were unrelated and none had the imprimatur of the American or NATO command.  However like the My Lai massacre committed by the platoon led by Lieutenant William Calley during the Vietnam War the crimes have tarnished the honor of the US military and are undermining all efforts to bring about a successful conclusion to the war in Afghanistan.

Unforced errors do not help when the strategic goals are totally dependent on the cooperation and goodwill of the populace of the country that you are operating in and trying to secure. The whole tenant of Counterinsurgency Warfare is securing the population and by doing that bringing them to cooperate with you. If you do not have the massive numbers of troops to actually secure the country yourself it is doubly important. In fact by doctrine there should be 4 times more troops to conduct a successful counterinsurgency campaign. In places where the indigenous forces are larger and more capable some or even much of the burden can be born by them, however the Afghan National Army and National Police are able to shoulder the burden. Riddled with corruption, plagued by incompetent leaders, poor discipline, high desertion rates and awash in Taliban sympathizers. A growing number of American and NATO soldiers have lost their lives in attacks from the Afghan soldiers and police working alongside of them.

Of course there are other factors such as that the government of the country must inspire the confidence of its own people in order to turn back an insurgency.  Afghanistan is “governed” if one can call it that by the regime of Mohammed Karzai. The government can most charitably be described as corrupt and incompetent.  However the Karzai government has little power or authority outside of Kabul.  It has little control over its own security forces or for that matter even regional governors who function in a near autonomous fashion as best benefits them personally or the tribe that they belong.  A shadow government of the Taliban factions often hold as much real power over the people as the “legitimate” government.  The biggest money maker is the Opium trade as Afghanistan is one of the top Opium producers in the world. The real truth is that for all practical matters Afghanistan is for all practical purposes a narco-State run by criminals and thugs of different factions.

Afghanistan also is a nation whose people believe that it is an offense against Islam foreigners to occupy the country. The Afghanis have shown their resolve against every invader and though successfully invaded they have never been long occupied nor cooperated well with their occupiers, even those that considered themselves liberators. As such the campaign to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and bring about some form of democracy has had little chance of success after forces were diverted to the invasion of Iraq.

The latest incident will cause more American and NATO soldiers to die and will likely erase any possibility that we can succeed in our goal of an orderly train up of Afghan security forces and transfer of the conduct of the war to them.  It is very likely that the situation on the ground will get worse, perhaps markedly worse.  The American military will do the right thing regarding the investigation and prosecution of this case but that investigation may prove to show how bad things have become.

Unforced errors.  I don’t know how to overcome them.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Atrocity in War: The Afghanistan Video

“Our men can’t make this change from normal civilians into warriors and remain the same people … the abnormal world they have been plunged into, the new philosophies they have had to assume or perish inwardly, the horrors and delights … they are bound to be different people from those you sent away. They are rougher than when you knew them. Killing is a rough business.”  Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle was one of the most prolific wartime journalists that ever lived, in fact he was killed by Japanese machine gun fire on the island of Ie Jima while with the Army during the Okinawa campaign. Ernie Pyle understood war and the men that fight it. If he was alive today I imagine that his comments about what happens to men in combat would be no different now than it was then.

In the past two days we have heard much and seen a distressing video of four U.S. Marines from a Scout-Sniper Team of 3rd Battalion 2nd Marine Regiment urinating on dead Taliban fighters. The images are disturbing and because they are raw and offensive they have created a furor that could define the NATO campaign in Afghanistan as much as the Abu Ghraib torture photos harmed U.S. efforts in Iraq and the broader Middle East.  When I was in Iraq I heard Marine leaders talking about the Abu Ghraib incident with distain and saying that those few soldiers that recorded their torture of prisoners were costing us the war.

3/2 was deployed in the northern area of Helmand Province and lost 6 Marines and a Navy Corpsman during their deployment. According to the Marine Corps Times Battle Rattle Blog author Dan Lamothe, Major General John Toolan said that the Scout Snipers of 3/2 may have killed up to 100 insurgents each during their tour, which would mean that they were engaged in many dangerous combat engagements.  This in no way condones or excuses their actions but it does provide some context to view what happened.

However wrong the actions may be and how stupid it was for the Marines in this unit to record them and allow them onto the internet the truth is that war changes people. Ordinary men do things that they would not have contemplated before it including breaking the codes of honor that they pledge to uphold when volunteering to serve. Ernie Pyle understood this far better than most journalists before or since. In fact he understood it far better than the minuscule percentage of Americans who have ever served in the military much less in combat.  Pyle wrote:

“Their life consisted wholly and solely of war, for they were and always had been front-line infantrymen. They survived because the fates were kind to them, certainly — but also because they had become hard and immensely wise in animal-like ways of self-preservation.”

E.B Sledge who served throughout the Pacific War as a Marine infantryman and whose writings are dramatized in the HBO Series The Pacific wrote about fellow Marines that harvested gold teeth from dead Japanese soldiers, urinated in the mouths of the corpses of the Japanese and shot civilians.  He was patriotic, religious and after the war wrote in his book With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa:

“The fierce struggle for survival in the abyss of Peleliu had eroded the veneer of civilization and made savages of us all. We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines-service troops and civilians.” 

Mind you this is not an excuse for what these Marines did but it does offer an explanation for the act that they committed to video that we view without any context as to what led up to the incident or what they had been through.  It seems that people are rushing to judgement and that this will be compared to Abu Ghraib as a defining image of the Afghanistan as much as Abu Ghraib became symbolic of Iraq.  This is despite the fact that apart from being committed to video they are different. The Marines were infantrymen in one of the most desolate and dangerous combat zones of Afghanistan and the Abu Ghraib soldiers were jailers that had complete control of the prisoners.  There is a major difference between the actions as deplorable as both are.

I see the American wounded every day, Marines and Sailors whose lives have been radically changed by service in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They have seen horrors committed by Taliban, Al Qaida and other insurgents against their comrades as well as against Iraqi and Afghan civilians.  The war is every bit as brutal as was waged in the Pacific and they fight a brutal and unforgiving enemy that is intent on driving the infidels out of Afghanistan.

The uncomfortable fact is that an incredibly small number of Americans are fighting a war that at best will be a draw and quite probably a strategic and political defeat despite our troops not losing any battles.  The fact is that the action of these Marines will be used to not only prosecute them but to demonize them just as the actions of Lieutenant William Calley and his platoon at My Lai were used to demonize the Americans that fought in Vietnam.  The sad truth is that most of those that will engage in such demonization have never served in harm’s way or even known military service. Sledge wrote of critics of the Marines following the Second World War:

“In the post-war years, the U.S. Marine Corps came in for a great deal of undeserved criticism in my opinion, from well-meaning persons who did not comprehend the magnitude of stress and horror that combat can be. The technology that developed the rifle barrel, the machine gun and high explosive shells has turned war into prolonged, subhuman slaughter.”

I know that a thorough investigation will be conducted and that we will find out what happened in this unit that caused this obvious breakdown in discipline. Right now we don’t know who even posted the video on the internet and why they did so. Hopefully this is an isolated incident otherwise the incident will only grow in significance. During the investigation as well as news reports and interviews we will learn about the individual Marines involved in this action as well as their leaders. It will likely be uncomfortable and sad to watch.  It could well damage the reputation of the Marine Corps in the eyes of many even if it is an isolated incident.  What happened has already and will continue to reverberate here and in Afghanistan for a long time to come.  I just wish that we our media and politicians were as wise as Ernie Pyle and Eugene Sledge in judging these men as individuals before we know the whole story.

As someone that has served with Marines in harm’s way and know something of the stress that small teams of Marines can experience I have mixed feelings on this. I cannot approve of desecrating the remains of any human being at the same time I wonder what happened before this that might have contributed to the incident.  Of course we will hear more details than we want.

Peace

Padre Steve+

P.S. I have written a number of articles about the political, ideological strategic and moral aspects of war which I have listed here:

War Without Mercy: Race, Religion, Ideology and Total War

Why History Matters: The Disastrous Effects of Long Insurgency Campaigns on the Nations that Wage them and the Armies that Fight Them 

The Ideological War: How Hitler’s Racial Theories Influenced German Operations in Poland and Russia

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The Uncomfortable Legacy of Colonel General Ludwig Beck

“It is a lack of character and insight, when a soldier in high command sees his duty and mission only in the context of his military orders without realizing that the highest responsibility is to the people of his country.” Ludwig Beck

Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-C13564,_Ludwig_BeckLudwig Beck  Bundesarchiv Foto

This is one of those uncomfortable posts to write partially because I know that some people will take it completely wrong or ascribe meaning to it that I do not intend. I by training am a military historian, probably better at that than I am theology.  One thing that fascinates me in the study of military history is the actions of men in the face of evil and the meetings of such people at the intersections of where military and government policy intersect.  It is a timeless theme. The bulk of my study until the past few years was the German Army, particularly that of the Weimar Republic and the Wehrmacht to include policies, leaders, political attitudes and behavior in war and peace. Thus it makes sense for me to look at Colonel General Ludwig Beck who held the post of Chief of the German General Staff during the early part of the Nazi era.

Ludwig Beck is one of those characters in military history that makes professional military officers uncomfortable.  Beck is not the perfect example of righteousness nor was he always correct in things that he supported.  As an artillery regiment commander he defended the rights of soldiers and officers to be Nazi Party members though he himself was not one.  He, like many military officers was a conservative military officer by nature and became Chief of Staff of the Wehrmacht in 1935 two years after Hitler’s ascension to power.  Taking office Beck was troubled by some Nazi policies but not by the need for Germany to expand to areas that it had once controlled, he opposed the plan to attack Czechoslovakia not because of any love for the Czech state which he desired to be eliminated, but rather it being a war that Germany could not win. He resigned from his position a Chief of Staff in 1938 when he could not persuade the rest of the General Staff to resign in protest over Hitler’s plan which he felt would be disastrous for Germany.  Had the western powers led by Neville Chamberlain not caved at Munich it is likely that the Germans would have suffered badly against the Czech army and fortifications and with the entry of France into the war would have suffered a defeat that would have ended the Hitler regime.  In fact German officers who saw the extent of Czech preparations on the frontier following the Munich deal were greatly relieved that they did not have to fight their way into the Czech state.

After his resignation Beck played a key role in the resistance movement. He was involved in the planning for a number of attempts on Hitler’s life. Yet it was his leadership in the July 20th 1944 attempt on the life of Hitler that ensured his place in history.  With Colonel Klaus Von Stauffenberg and others in the General Staff at the Front and in Germany he acted to avert further destruction in Europe and the certain destruction of Germany.  The plot, Operation Valkyrie was marred by poor execution and failed to kill Hitler of seize power but for a few hours. The planners had left too much to chance and once Hitler had restored communications the coup attempted ended swiftly.  Had the attempt succeeded Beck was in line to become either the leader of Germany or the Head of the Army.  Instead while being interrogated after his capture he took his own life depriving Nazi leaders of the ability to put him up for a public trial at which he would have been humiliated and then executed.  The Kasserne in Sonthofen where the Bundeswehr MP School and Staff School as well as NATO and EU military schools are located is named for him.  It is there, ironically a former Adolf Hitler School that his memory and sacrifice is honored by the nation which emerged from the rubble of World War Two.  He is honored in a small museum and with a plaque recognizing his sacrifice.

492Ludwig Beck Kasserne Sonthofen

The reason that General Beck makes many of us in uniform uncomfortable (and I do include myself) is that he recognized that senior officers, especially those in high command who help set and execute policy cannot isolate themselves in the purely military aspects of the operations.  Instead he believed that officers have a higher duty to the constitution and people and not just the military mission that they have been assigned.  When he realized that he could not stop Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia he resigned and worked in the obscurity of a small and often divided resistance movement against Hitler.  The bulk of the German high command, including many officers idolized in the United States did not recognize the higher duty. Many of these men were consummate professionals who did not support the evil of the Nazi regime and who conducted themselves honorably. Yet they effectively abetted its crimes by not opposing actions of their government that were against international law and morality as well as dangerous from purely a pragmatic military standpoint.

The problem is that military officers in any nation, including ours can face situations such as Beck faced.  A military’s character is demonstrated in how leaders deal with such situations.  Beck recognized the situation early, the bulk of his fellow officers did not recognize a problem until Germany was embroiled in a war that it could no longer win.  Even then most could not mount an opposition to Hitler because they did not want to be considered to be mutineers and violate their oath.  The potential to abet evil when military professionals bury their heads by planning and executing purely military aspects of a campaign is great.  If they ignore questionable policy or even policies that they know that have been judged by the international community to be illegal or immoral, such as torture of prisoners or waging wars of aggression against countries that have not attacked their nation they become complicit in their nations crimes.  This was the case with German Officers who may not have committed any personal crime and even tried to mitigate the evils of the Nazi regime were morally complicit in that evil.

In the United States the military shows its fidelity by remembering our oath to the Constitution and being faithful to it and the people that we serve.  As officers we represent all Americans and not just those of our political party, religious faith or social or economic interests, nor any political leader, faction or interest group within the nation. The Constitution, our military regulations, traditions and the Uniform Code of Military Justice are the standard by which we operate and by which we conduct ourselves and tools that protect us when policies or actions taken by the government or people within it violate those codes or international law.  The UCMJ makes it clear those officers who take part in, plan or a complicit in illegal actions in war are committing crimes.

When a nation become involved in wars which are non-traditional, revolutionary wars or insurgencies that barriers to professional conduct can be broken down. The Mai Lai massacre committed by 2LT William Calley’s platoon with the certain knowledge and maybe even approval of individuals in the chain of command is one example as were the uncontrolled chaos of prisoner abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib.

Times are difficult and we do not know what the future brings.  Stress in societies caused by economic conditions, natural disasters, lawlessness on the streets and divided and ineffective governments sometimes remove the moral restraints of the society and even affect the military.  One sees this in Weimar Germany as well as the 4th Republic in France which had to deal with post World War II economic difficulties, exacerbated by recriminations of political opponents for actions the others did during the war while France was occupied by Germany as well as the wars in Indo-China and Algeria which further divided the nation and the military.

It is in stressful and uncertain times that officers have to be men and women of principle who always uphold the highest traditions of their military as well as be the voice of conscience when governments, political parties, special interests or leaders begin to violate international norms in the conduct of war. Beck was not a perfect officer. He supported some of Hitler’s policies until after his resignation but like much of the resistance believed that the Nazi regime could only end up destroying Germany.  It is important to remember that like Ludwig Beck that officers do not need to sacrifice their honor to be faithful to their oath.

Peace, Steve+

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