U.S. military leaders are worried that recent outrageous conduct by U.S. troops in Afghanistan are stoking public anger against the foreign occupation, destabilizing the country and endangering U.S. and NATO troops there. They responded by telling their troops to behave. The AP reported “Military commanders warned to get troops in line” (May 3, 2012):
Military leaders are telling commanders to get their troops in line and refrain from misconduct such as urinating on enemy corpses, in a sharp response to the tasteless photos and other disturbing examples of bad behavior that have enraged Afghans and complicated war-fighting.
President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have signed a strategic partnership accord that charts the future of US-Afghan relations beyond the end of the NATO combat mission in the country in 2014.
The deal does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does allow the US to potentially keep troops in Afghanistan after the war ends for two specific purposes: continued training of Afghan forces and targeted operations against al-Qaeda.
So, essentially the President has reneged on his promise to end the war and occupation of Afghanistan. Democracy Now! ran a show that featured the critical commentary of Tariq Ali and Ann Wright. The U.S. seeks to establish a long term military base presence in Afghanistan, not for anti-terrorism operations, but for surrounding Russia and China. However, despite modeling the security agreement on the kinds of arrangements in existence in Japan, Afghanistan is not post-war Japan.
The Marine Corps said Wednesday that it is investigating the origins of a video on the Internet that purports to show Marines in combat gear urinating on the corpses of three Taliban insurgents.
The brief video, which runs for less than a minute, began circulating on Web sites early Wednesday. It depicts four Marines laughing as they relieve themselves while standing over three prostrate bodies.
A caption asserts that the Marines are part of a scout sniper team with the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, an infantry unit from Camp Lejeune, N.C. Members of the unit were deployed to Afghanistan last year but returned in September.
The Marine Corps was quick to distance itself from the scandal:
“The actions portrayed are not consistent with our core values and are not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps,” she said in a statement.
Then on February 22, 2012, U.S. troops from Bagram Air Base burned Qurans at the nearby detention facility. The desecration of the Muslim holy book sparked a deadly wave of protests and violence across Afghanistan that resulted in 41 deaths and at least 270 injuries. As the New York Times reports “Obama Sends Apology as Afghan Koran Protests Rage” (February 23, 2012):
The potential scope of the fallout from the burning of several copies of the Koran by American military personnel this week became chillingly clear on Thursday as a man in an Afghan Army uniform shot and killed two American soldiers, while a crowd nearby protested the desecration of the Muslim holy book.
And all President Obama could do was say “uh, sorry.”
The paratroopers had their assignment: Check out reports that Afghan police had recovered the mangled remains of an insurgent suicide bomber. Try to get iris scans and fingerprints for identification.
The 82nd Airborne Division soldiers arrived at the police station in Afghanistan’s Zabol province in February 2010. They inspected the body parts. Then the mission turned macabre: The paratroopers posed for photos next to Afghan police, grinning while some held — and others squatted beside — the corpse’s severed legs.
A few months later, the same platoon was dispatched to investigate the remains of three insurgents who Afghan police said had accidentally blown themselves up. After obtaining a few fingerprints, they posed next to the remains, again grinning and mugging for photographs.
Two soldiers posed holding a dead man’s hand with the middle finger raised. A soldier leaned over the bearded corpse while clutching the man’s hand. Someone placed an unofficial platoon patch reading “Zombie Hunter” next to other remains and took a picture
The inhumane conduct of U.S. troops that has shocked public sensibilities is not an abberation; it is a product of the dehumanizing psychic conditioning of militarization and war. It is a necessary skill for troops to survive in war. To get a glimpse of this conditioning, I highly recommend Hell and Back Again, a powerful film about a Marine who is injured in Afghanistan and struggles to readjust to the terrifying normalcy of life back in the U.S. Like Restrepo, another powerful documentary about the war in Afghanistan,Hell and Back Again immerses the viewer in the “fog of war.” But unlike Restrepo, which leaves the audience disoriented by the surreal Apocalypse Now!-like meaninglessness and horror of it all, Hell and Back Again pulls the audience back to into the struggles of one Marine and his loved ones trying to piece together his life and make sense of what he has experienced. It forces us to face the mangled humanity that emerges from war, which can be more disquieting and terrifying than the senseless violence of the war itself. The website describes the film as:
From his embed with US Marines Echo Company in Afghanistan, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis reveals the devastating impact a Taliban machine-gun bullet has on the life of 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris. The film seamlessly transitions from stunning war reportage to an intimate, visceral portrait of one man’s personal struggle at home in North Carolina, where Harris confronts the physical and emotional difficulties of re-adjusting to civilian life with the love and support of his wife, Ashley. Masterfully contrasting the intensity of the frontline with the unsettling normalcy of home, HELL AND BACK AGAIN lays bare the true cost of war.
In 2009, U.S. Marines launched a major helicopter assault on a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan. Within hours of being dropped deep behind enemy lines, 25-year-old Sergeant Nathan Harris’s unit (US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment) is attacked from all sides. Cut off and surrounded, the Marines fight a ghostlike enemy and experience immense hostility from displaced villagers caught in the middle.
Embedded in Echo Company during the assault, photojournalist and filmmaker Danfung Dennis captures the frontline action with visceral immediacy. When Sergeant Harris returns home to North Carolina after a life-threatening injury in battle, the film evolves from a war exposé to the story of one man’s personal apocalypse. With the love and support of his wife, Ashley, Harris struggles to overcome the difficulties of transitioning back to civilian life.
In immense physical pain, Sergeant Harris grows addicted to his medication. His agony deepens as he attempts to reconcile the gulf between his experience of war and the terrifying normalcy of life at home. The two realities seamlessly intertwine to communicate both the extraordinary drama of war and, for a generation of soldiers, the no less shocking experience of returning home.
An unprecedented exploration of the moving image and a film of uncommon intimacy, HELL AND BACK AGAIN comes full circle as it lays bare the true cost of war.
Filmmaker Danfung Dennis wrote about his personal motivation to make the film:
Oct. 23, 2010 – This morning I learned a photographer friend was severely wounded after stepping on a mine in southern Afghanistan. He lost both his legs and is in critical condition.
I’m flooded by feelings of rage, sadness, helplessness and isolation. I think of my friends and colleagues that have lost their lives while doing their job. It all seems utterly senseless.
Unless you have a personal connection, the war in Afghanistan is an abstraction. After nearly ten years since the initial invasion, the daily bombings and ongoing violence has become mundane, almost ordinary. It is tempting to become indifferent to the horror and pain. It is much easier to look away from the victims. It is much easier to lead a life without rude interruptions from complex insurgencies in distant lands. But it is when we take this easier path, the suffering becomes of no consequence and therefore meaningless. The anguish becomes invisible, an abstraction. It is when society becomes numb to inhumanity; horror is allowed to spread in darkness.
Visual imagery can be a powerful medium for truth. The images of napalmed girls screaming by Nick Ut, the street execution of a Vietcong prisoner by Eddie Adams, the shell-shocked soldier by Don McCullin – these iconic images have burned into our collective consciousness as reminders of war’s consequences.
But, this visual language is dying. The traditional outlets are collapsing. In the midst of this upheaval, we must invent a new language. I am attempting to combine the power of the still image with advanced technology to change the vernacular of photojournalism and filmmaking. Instead of opening a window to glimpse another world, I am attempting to bring the viewer into that world. I believe shared experiences will ultimately build a common humanity.
Through my work I hope to shake people from their indifference to war, and to bridge the disconnect between the realities on the ground and the public consciousness at home. By bearing witness and shedding light on another’s pain and despair, I am trying to invoke our humanity and a response to act. Is it possible that war is an archaic and primitive human behavior that society is capable of advancing past? Is it possible that the combination of photojournalism, filmmaking and technology can plead for peace and contribute to this future?
It is these possibilities that motivate us to risk life and limb.
American and other coalition forces here are being killed in increasing numbers by the very Afghan soldiers they fight alongside and train, in attacks motivated by deep-seated animosity between the supposedly allied forces, according to American and Afghan officers and a classified coalition report.
A decade into the war in Afghanistan, the report makes clear that these killings have become the most visible symptom of a far deeper ailment plaguing the war effort: the contempt each side holds for the other, never mind the Taliban. The ill will and mistrust run deep among civilians and militaries on both sides, raising questions about what future role the United States and its allies can expect to play in Afghanistan.
Underscoring the danger, a gunman in an Afghan Army uniform killed four French service members and wounded several others on Friday, according to an Afghan police official in Kapisa Province in eastern Afghanistan, prompting the French president to suspend his country’s operations here.
The level of animosity between U.S. and Afghan people was exacerbated by the recent video clip of U.S. troops urinating on Taliban corpses:
One instance of the general level of antipathy in the war exploded into uncomfortable view last week when video emerged of American Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters. Although American commanders quickly took action and condemned the act, chat-room and Facebook posts by Marines and their supporters were full of praise for the desecration.
The article was based on a classified report “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility” that was conducted by a behavioral scientist who surveyed 613 Afghan soldiers and police officers, 215 American soldiers and 30 Afghan interpreters who worked for the Americans. It was blunt in its assessment of the situation and sharply critical of public statements to downplay the killings as isolated incidents:
“Lethal altercations are clearly not rare or isolated; they reflect a rapidly growing systemic homicide threat (a magnitude of which may be unprecedented between ‘allies’ in modern military history),” it said. Official NATO pronouncements to the contrary “seem disingenuous, if not profoundly intellectually dishonest,” said the report, and it played down the role of Taliban infiltrators in the killings.
The classified report found that between May 2007 and May 2011, when it was completed, at least 58 Western service members were killed in 26 separate attacks by Afghan soldiers and the police nationwide. Most of those attacks have occurred since October 2009. This toll represented 6 percent of all hostile coalition deaths during that period, the report said.
The helicopter, a CH-53D Sea Stallion from Marine Corps Base Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay, crashed Thursday in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand. The Marine unit, known as the Lucky Red Lions, deployed in August.
The Honolulu Star Advertiser reported that the crash involved the same type of helicopter that crashed in Kaneʻohe bay in March 2011, killing one pilot. These Sea-Stallion helicopters have been involved in a number of other crashes, including a crash into an Okinawan university and a tragic crash in 2005 in Afghanistan:
All the Marine Corps’ Vietnam War-era Sea Stallion helicopters are based at Kaneohe Bay. Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 363 out of Hawaii deployed to Afghanistan in August, replacing another Hawaii unit, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463.
The twin-engined CH-53D first flew in 1964 and became operational in 1966, according to the Navy. In the mid-1990s the Marine Corps consolidated all its remaining Sea Stallions at Kaneohe.
It is now used as a medium-lift helicopter. The Marines in Hawaii have started to swap out some of the older two-engine CH-53Ds with the newer CH-53E Super Stallion, a more powerful, three-engine variant that fulfills a heavy-lift role.
At least five of an anticipated squadron complement of 12 Super Stallions are in Hawaii. Other older Sea Stallions are expected to be replaced in Hawaii by MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft.
The Marine Corps said in May that all of the CH-53Ds in three squadrons at Kaneohe Bay were expected to be retired from service in the next year and a half.
A squadron of 12 MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft is tentatively scheduled to arrive in Hawaii in 2014, the Corps said.
The Marines at Kaneohe Bay in 2005 paid a steep price in life in the crash of a CH-53 Super Stallion — the three-engine variant now in widespread use in the Corps — that went down in a sandstorm in western Iraq.
The crew of the California-based helicopter became disoriented on Jan. 26, 2005, when weather turned bad and mistakenly flew the transport chopper into the ground, investigators determined.
Of 31 killed, 26 Marines and a sailor were from Kaneohe Bay.
The Washington Post reported that eight U.S. soldiers have been charged with crimes related to the October 3 death of a fellow soldier who apparently committed suicide. This is the second Asian American military personnel in recent months who allegedly committed suicide after abusive treatment by fellow GIs. It appears that there were racial elements to the this recent incident. In the earlier incident, Kane’ohe Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Harry Lew also committed suicide after hazing by comrades. Several Marines face courts martial for their hazing of Lew. Chen’s death comes at a time when the U.S. military is facing an epidemic of suicides in the ranks:
Eight American soldiers deployed in Afghanistan have been charged in connection with the Oct. 3 death of a comrade who apparently committed suicide in a guard tower, U.S. military officials said Wednesday.
Pvt. Danny Chen, 19, an infantryman, died from an “apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound” at a small combat outpost in Kandahar province, according to a statement issued by the NATO command in southern Afghanistan.
Since September, at least 60 people have died in 14 reported CIA drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal regions. The Obama administration has named only one of the dead, hailing the elimination of Janbaz Zadran, a top official in the Haqqani insurgent network, as a counterterrorism victory.
The identities of the rest remain classified, as does the existence of the drone program itself. Because the names of the dead and the threat they were believed to pose are secret, it is impossible for anyone without access to U.S. intelligence to assess whether the deaths were justified.
The administration has said that its covert, targeted killings with remote-controlled aircraft in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and potentially beyond are proper under both domestic and international law. It has said that the targets are chosen under strict criteria, with rigorous internal oversight.
It has parried reports of collateral damage and the alleged killing of innocents by saying that drones, with their surveillance capabilities and precision missiles, result in far fewer mistakes than less sophisticated weapons.
Yet in carrying out hundreds of strikes over three years — resulting in an estimated 1,350 to 2,250 deaths in Pakistan — it has provided virtually no details to support those assertions.
Citing broad powers and secrecy, the U.S. government has basically adopted a ‘trust me’ concept based on the President’s personal legitimacy:
The drone program is actually three separate initiatives that operate under a complicated web of overlapping legal authorities and approval mechanisms.
The least controversial is the military’s relatively public use of armed drones in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently in Libya. The other two programs — the CIA’s use of drones in Pakistan, and counterterrorism operations by the CIA and the military in Yemen, Somalia and conceivably beyond — are the secret parts.
Under domestic law, the administration considers all three to be covered by the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress passed days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In two key sentences that have no expiration date, the AUMF gives the president sole power to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against nations, groups or persons who committed or aided the attacks, and to prevent future attacks.
The U.S. government has fought the release of information sought by human rights and civil liberties groups and does not even acknowledge the existence of its targeted assassination programs:
Some critics of the use of drones are discomfited by the relatively risk-free, long-distance killing via video screen and joystick. But the question of whether such killings are legal “has little to do with the choice of the weapon,” Tom Malinowski, Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said this year in one of several think tank conferences where the subject was debated. “The question is about who can be killed, whether using this weapon or any other.” In a letter to Obama Monday, Human Rights Watch called the administration’s claims of compliance with international law “unsupported” and “wholly inadequate.”
Civil and human rights groups have been unsuccessful in persuading U.S. courts to force the administration to reveal details of the program. In September, a federal judge found for the CIA in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit alleging that the agency’s refusal to release information about drone killings was illegal.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the ACLU asked for documents related to “the legal basis in domestic, foreign, and international law for the use of drones to conduct targeted killings,” as well as information about target selection, the number of people killed, civilian casualties, and “geographic or territorial limits” to the program.
When the CIA replied that even the “fact of the existence or nonexistence” of such a program was classified, the ACLU sued, saying that then-CIA Director Leon E. Panetta had made the classification argument moot with repeated public comments about the killings to the media and Congress.
Another aspect of the drone wars that has been kept hidden is its history of defects, malfunctions and accidents. The apparent capture of a secret U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel drone by Iran has shined a spotlight on the technological weaknesses of even this most secret and technologically advanced weapon system. In “The Drone That Fell From the Sky,” Nick Turse writing in Tom Dispatch exposed the flaws and dangers of the U.S. reliance of these new weapons:
A document detailing a U.S. Air Force investigation of that Predator crash, examined by TomDispatch, sheds light on the lifecycle and flaws of drones — just what can go wrong in unmanned air operations — as well as the shadowy system of bases and units scattered across the globe that keep those drones constantly in the skies as the U.S. becomes ever more reliant on remote-controlled warfare.
That report and striking new statistics obtained from the military offer insights into underexamined flaws in drone technology. They are also a reminder of the failure of journalists to move beyond awe when it comes to high-tech warfare and America’s latest wonder weapons — their curious inability to examine the stark limitations of man and machine that can send even the most advanced military technology hurtling to Earth.
Turse also explains how the technological weaknesses, human errors and accelerated tempo of this seemingly low risk form of warfare are having profound negative impacts on U.S. interests, another case of tactical superiority and success resulting in strategic failure:
Remotely piloted aircraft have regularly been touted, in the press and the military, as wonder weapons, the way, not so long ago, counterinsurgency tactics were being promoted as an elixir for military failure. Like the airplane, the tank, and nuclear weapons before it, the drone has been touted as a game-changer, destined to alter the very essence of warfare.
Instead, like the others, it has increasingly proven to be a non-game-changer of a weapon with ordinary vulnerabilities. Its technology is fallible and its efforts have often been counterproductive in these last years. For example, the inability of pilots watching computer monitors on the other side of the planet to discriminate between armed combatants and innocent civilians has proven a continuing problem for the military’s drone operations, while the CIA’s judge-jury-executioner assassination program is widely considered to have run afoul of international law — and, in the case of Pakistan, to be alienating an entire population. The drone increasingly looks less like a winning weapon than a machine for generating opposition and enemies.
The recent losses of the Pentagon’s robot Sentinel in Iran, the Reaper in the Seychelles, and the Predator in Kandahar, however, offer a window into a future in which the global skies will be filled with drones that may prove far less wondrous than Americans have been led to believe. The United States could turn out to be relying on a fleet of robots with wings of clay.
As war, economic crises and political unrest continue to sap the United States, maintaining the vast network of U.S. foreign military bases may become more tenuous. Tarak Barkawi writes in Al Jazeera:
But the US is divided and turned in on itself. Much of the government is hobbled by underinvestment, privatisation and party politics. Mainstream debate lacks little rational basis for effective foreign and strategic policy.
The presumptive Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, has recently suggested China take over from the US in providing humanitarian aid.
The world is becoming a different place. Major US interventions, welcome or not, are unlikely to be on offer. We are perhaps one financial crisis away from the moment when the idea of maintaining even established bases abroad – when the iron web of empire since 1945 will itself be called into question.
This may be a moment for anti-militarization forces to push back against the war machine. Radio France Internationale reports that Kyrgyzstanʻs president-elect Amazbexk Atambayev has called for the U.S. to close its military base in Manas:
Kyrgyzstan’s president-elect Amazbexk Atambayev has declared that the United States must shut down its base in the central Asian country when the lease expires in 2014. Atambayev, who won Sunday’s election with over 63 per cent of the vote, said that the base’s presence is a security threat to Kyrgyzstan.
Local politicians say that fuel dumps by US planes destroy crops and cause illness, claims that are denied by Washington.
But Atambayev, who resigned as prime minister to stand as president, invoked the country’s security to justify the ultimatum.
“We know that the United States is often engaged in conflict. First in Iraq, then in Afghanistan, and now relations are tense with Iran,” he said. “I would not want for one of these countries to launch a retaliatory strike on the military base.”
However, despite the pending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the U.S. plans an expansion within the Persian Gulf region to maintain hegemony in the region. The New York Times reports:
The Obama administration plans to bolster the American military presence in the Persian Gulf after it withdraws the remaining troops from Iraq this year, according to officials and diplomats. That repositioning could include new combat forces in Kuwait able to respond to a collapse of security in Iraq or a military confrontation with Iran.
The plans, under discussion for months, gained new urgency after President Obama’s announcement this month that the last American soldiers would be brought home from Iraq by the end of December. Ending the eight-year war was a central pledge of his presidential campaign, but American military officers and diplomats, as well as officials of several countries in the region, worry that the withdrawal could leave instability or worse in its wake.
After unsuccessfully pressing both the Obama administration and the Iraqi government to permit as many as 20,000 American troops to remain in Iraq beyond 2011, the Pentagon is now drawing up an alternative.
In addition to negotiations over maintaining a ground combat presence in Kuwait, the United States is considering sending more naval warships through international waters in the region.
‘Everyone in Okinawa thinks it’s impossible’ to relocate US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to a more remote part of the island, former Okinawa governor Keiichi Inamine told the Mainichi newspaper.
Inamine, backed by the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was elected governor in late 1998 and supported the relocation plan with some conditions, such as 15-year time limit on a new facility in Nago city, in the northern part of Okinawa.
‘Okinawa has completely changed,’ he said. ‘It’s time for the government to admit it’s impossible to relocate the base within Okinawa and ask the US to reconsider.’
Two former Schofield Barracks soldiers who were scheduled to go to trial today on bribery, conspiracy and money laundering charges involving a $20 million military contract in Afghanistan pleaded guilty Monday in federal court.
Retired Army Sgt. Charles O. Finch pleaded guilty to one count each of bribery and conspiracy, while Sgt. Maj. Gary O. Canteen pleaded guilty to one count of bribery.
Both face up to five years in prison for the bribery charges, while Finch faces up to 15 years for the conspiracy charge.
According to Finch’s and Canteen’s plea agreements, $100,000 of the bribe money went into the bank account of a Pearl City T-shirt and souvenir shop owned by Canteen. The two men then split the money.
Sarah Stillman wrote an excellent article in the New Yorker about the “invisible army” of foreign workers or “third-country nationals” (TCNs) staffing U.S. military bases in war zones. She reports that “armed security personnel account for only about sixteen per cent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands.” These TCNs tell horrific tales of abuse and exploitation, but also of resistance. Trafficked humans and modern slavery make the war machine go. Here are some excerpts from the article:
The Invisible Army
For foreign workers on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, war can be hell.
by Sarah Stillman June 6, 2011
More than seventy thousand “third-country nationals” work for the American military in war zones; many report being held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by subcontractors who operate outside the law.
The article follows two Fijian women who were recruited to work in Dubai. They were tricked and found themselves working for the U.S. military bases in Iraq:
Soon, more than fifty women were lined up outside Meridian’s office to compete for positions that would pay as much as thirty-eight hundred dollars a month—more than ten times Fiji’s annual per-capita income. Ten women were chosen, Vinnie and Lydia among them. Vinnie lifted her arms in the air and sang her favorite gospel song: “We’re gonna make it, we’re gonna make it. With Jesus on our side, things will work out fine.” Lydia raced home to tell her husband and explain things to her five-year-old son. “Mommy’s going to be O.K.,” she recalls telling him. “Dubai, it’s a rich country. Only good things can happen.”
On the morning of October 10, 2007, the beauticians boarded their flight to the Emirates. They carried duffelbags full of cosmetics, family photographs, Bibles, floral sarongs, and chambas, traditional silky Fijian tops worn with patterned skirts. More than half of the women left husbands and children behind. In the rush to depart, none of them examined the fine print on their travel documents: their visas to the Emirates weren’t employment permits but thirty-day travel passes that forbade all work, “paid or unpaid”; their occupations were listed as “Sales Coördinator.” And Dubai was just a stopping-off point. They were bound for U.S. military bases in Iraq.
Lydia and Vinnie were unwitting recruits for the Pentagon’s invisible army: more than seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries who service U.S. military logistics contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Filipinos launder soldiers’ uniforms, Kenyans truck frozen steaks and inflatable tents, Bosnians repair electrical grids, and Indians provide iced mocha lattes. The Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) is behind most of the commercial “tastes of home” that can be found on major U.S. bases, which include jewelry stores, souvenir shops filled with carved camels and Taliban chess sets, beauty salons where soldiers can receive massages and pedicures, and fast-food courts featuring Taco Bell, Subway, Pizza Hut, and Cinnabon. (AAFES’s motto: “We go where you go.”)
The expansion of private-security contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan is well known. But armed security personnel account for only about sixteen per cent of the over-all contracting force. The vast majority—more than sixty per cent of the total in Iraq—aren’t hired guns but hired hands. These workers, primarily from South Asia and Africa, often live in barbed-wire compounds on U.S. bases, eat at meagre chow halls, and host dance parties featuring Nepalese romance ballads and Ugandan church songs. A large number are employed by fly-by-night subcontractors who are financed by the American taxpayer but who often operate outside the law.
The wars’ foreign workers are known, in military parlance, as “third-country nationals,” or T.C.N.s. Many of them recount having been robbed of wages, injured without compensation, subjected to sexual assault, and held in conditions resembling indentured servitude by their subcontractor bosses. Previously unreleased contractor memos, hundreds of interviews, and government documents I obtained during a yearlong investigation confirm many of these claims and reveal other grounds for concern. Widespread mistreatment even led to a series of food riots in Pentagon subcontractor camps, some involving more than a thousand workers.
Amid the slow withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, T.C.N.s have become an integral part of the Obama Administration’s long-term strategy, as a way of replacing American boots on the ground. But top U.S. military officials are seeing the drawbacks to this outsourcing bonanza. Some argue, as retired General Stanley McChrystal did before his ouster from Afghanistan, last summer, that the unregulated rise of the Pentagon’s Third World logistics army is undermining American military objectives. Others worry that mistreatment of foreign workers has become, as the former U.S. Representative Christopher Shays, who co-chairs the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting, describes it, “a human-rights abuse that cannot be tolerated.”
The women working in these bases are often sexually assaulted:
Late one night in early April, 2008, I knocked on the door of Lydia and Vinnie’s shipping container to find Lydia curled up on the floor, knees to chest, chin to knees, crying. Vinnie told me, after some hesitation, that a supervisor had “had his way with” Lydia. According to the two women’s tearful account, non-consensual sex had become a regular feature of Lydia’s life. They said the man would taunt Lydia, calling her a “fucking bitch” and describing the various acts he would like to see her perform. Lydia trembled, her normally confident figure crumpled inward. “If he comes tonight, you have to scream,” Vinnie told Lydia, tapping her fist against the aluminum siding of the shipping container. “Bang on this wall here and scream!”
The next day, I dialled the U.S. Army’s emergency sexual-assault hot line, printed on a pamphlet distributed across the base that read, “Stand Up Against Sexual Assault . . . Make a Difference.” Nobody answered. Despite several calls over several days, the number simply rang and rang. (A U.S. Central Command spokesman, when later reached for comment, noted, “We do track and investigate any report of criminal activity that occurs on our military bases.”)
“Treat others how you want to be treated” The abuses of human rights have grown so egregious that workers uprisings have sprung up and spread:
In the three years since Vinnie and Lydia returned from Iraq, thousands of third-country nationals have tried to make their grievances known, sometimes spectacularly. Previously unreported worker riots have erupted on U.S. bases over issues such as lack of food and unpaid wages. On May 1, 2010, in a labor camp run by Prime Projects International (P.P.I.) on the largest military base in Baghdad, more than a thousand subcontractors—primarily Indians and Nepalis—rampaged, using as weapons fists, stones, wooden bats, and, as one U.S. military policeman put it, “anything they could find.”
The riot started as a protest over a lack of food, according to a whippet-thin worker in the camp named Subramanian. A forty-five-year-old former rice farmer from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Subramanian worked twelve-hour days cleaning the military’s fast-food court. Around seven o’clock on the evening of the riot, Subramanian returned to the P.P.I. compound and lined up for dinner with several thousand other workers. But the cooks ran out of food, with at least five hundred left to feed. This wasn’t the first time; empty plates had become common in the camp during the past year. Several of the men stormed over to the management’s office, demanding more rice. When management refused, he recalls, dozens more entered the fray, then hundreds, and ultimately more than a thousand. Employees started to throw gravel at the managers. Four-foot pieces of plywood crashed through glass windows. Workers broke down the door to the food cellar and made off with as much as they could carry.
The riot spread through the vast camp. At one point, as many as fourteen hundred men were smashing office windows, hurling stones, destroying computers, raiding company files, and battering the entrance to the camp where a large blue-and-white sign reads “Treat others how you want to be treated. . . . No damaging P.P.I. property that has been built for your comfort.” (According to an investigation conducted by K.B.R., “P.P.I. employees . . . became agitated after being told they’d experience a delay while additional food was prepared.” “Upon full assessment of the incident,” a company spokesperson relayed in a written statement, “K.B.R. notified P.P.I. management of the need for changes to prevent any recurrence and worked with the subcontractor to implement those corrective actions.”)
Today’s Honolulu Star Advertiser reports that a planned Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) treatment center has been delayed due to difficulty in the consultation process regarding the preservation of historic properties:
The reason for the long delay lies with the VA’s difficulty in navigating the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and Section 106 of that act, which requires federal agencies to take into account effects on historic properties, and consult with state and other preservation agencies over their proposed actions.
Pua Aiu, administrator for the State Historic Preservation Division, said it’s taken a long time to gain consensus on the project because it’s going in on the “relatively pristine” Tripler grounds, an area that’s eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
“And when that happens, (consultation) normally takes a long time,” Aiu said.
Aiu said it’s not unusual for an agency to come in and “they believe their project is really good, and we believe their project is really good, but they have to accommodate the historic preservation rules. It’s a federal law.”
The VA came in initially with a project “that was simply unacceptable to be put on a property that’s eligible for the (National Register),” she said.
Veterans’ advocates say that the facility is desperately needed and criticize the “bureaucratic impasse” that has delayed the project.
There is no doubt that the epidemic of PTSD America’s wars have unleashed on our communities desperately needs attention. But as the New York Times article “A Beast in the Heart of Every Fighting Man” makes painfully clear, PTSD is merely a symptom of the profound moral, spiritual and social “disease” of war and militarism. Treating symptoms will not cure the disease.
Last May, in the small village of Qualaday in western Kandahar Province, a young Army lieutenant and his sergeants met with several elders to discuss the recent killing of a local mullah. The desert heat was fierce, and the elders led the soldiers across their village to sit under the shade of nearby trees. Three days had passed since they were last there; during that interval the place appeared to have been abandoned. When they sat down, some of the soldiers removed their helmets, and a few elders their sandals and turbans. A freelance photographer was permitted to make an audio recording of the discussion. The lieutenant wanted to know where everyone had gone. One elder explained: People left because they were afraid.
“Ask them, ‘Do they understand why we shot this dude?’ ” the lieutenant told his interpreter. During their last patrol to Qualaday, soldiers in the platoon had attacked Mullah Allah Dad with rifles and a fragmentation grenade that blew off the lower halves of his legs and badly disfigured his face. The soldiers claimed that Allah Dad was trying to throw a grenade at them. Two days after the killing, however, a company commander attended a council during which the district leader announced that people believed the incident had been staged and that the Americans had planted the grenade in order to justify a murder.
“Tell them it’s important that not only the people in this village know, but the people in surrounding villages know, that this guy was shot because he took an aggressive action against coalition forces,” the lieutenant told his interpreter. “We didn’t just [expletive] come over and just shoot him randomly. We don’t do that.”
Last month, in a military courtroom at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash., 22-year-old Jeremy Morlock confessed to participating in the premeditated murder of Mullah Allah Dad, as well as the murders of two other Afghan civilians. In exchange for his agreement to testify against four other soldiers charged in the crimes, including the supposed ringleader, Staff Sgt. Calvin Gibbs, the government reduced Morlock’s mandatory life sentence to 24 years, with the possibility of parole after approximately 8. The rest of the accused, who are still awaiting trial, contest the allegations against them.
The story that has been told so far — by Morlock in his confession and by various publications that relied heavily on the more sensational accusations from interviews hastily conducted by Army special agents in Afghanistan — is a fairly straightforward one: a sociopath joined the platoon and persuaded a handful of impressionable subordinates to join him in sport killing as opportunities arose. There may indeed be truth to this, though several soldiers in the platoon give a more complicated account. Certainly it’s a useful narrative, strategically and psychologically, for various parties trying to make sense of the murders — parents at a loss to explain their sons’ involvement and lawyers advocating their clients’ innocence and a military invested in a version of events that contains and cauterizes the problem.
On the day of Jeremy Morlock’s confession, I watched as several of his friends and relatives took the stand to vouch movingly for his character and struggle to fathom how the young man they knew could have committed the crimes to which he confessed. I watched, too, as Morlock himself recounted his failed ambition to follow in the footsteps of his father, a former master sergeant who died in a boating accident not long before Morlock deployed. “If he had been alive when I went to Afghanistan,” Morlock told the judge, “I know that would have made a difference. . . . I realize now that I wasn’t fully prepared for the reality of war as it was being fought in Afghanistan.”
Among the witnesses who testified that day was Stjepan Mestrovic, a sociologist who specializes in war crimes. Mestrovic was allowed to study an internal 500-page inquiry into the Fifth Stryker Brigade’s “command climate,” the purpose of which was to assess whether shortcomings in leadership might be partly to blame for the murders, and to identify any officers who should be held to account. In court, Mestrovic said he was shocked by how dysfunctional the brigade appeared to have been, and he added, “In a dysfunctional unit, we cannot predict who will be the deviant — but we can predict deviance.”
I met with Mestrovic later that evening and asked him to elaborate. Before becoming involved in Morlock’s case, he served as an expert witness at trials related to Abu Ghraib, the Baghdad canal killings and Operation Iron Triangle, a case with some similarities to this one, in which American soldiers in Iraq murdered three unarmed noncombatants. He excoriated the tendency of the Army — and the news media — to blame such crimes on “a few bad apples” or a “rogue platoon.” Close examination of these events, Mestrovic argued, invariably reveals that the simplistic bad-actor explanation “doesn’t fit the picture.”
Of course, while the murders in southern Afghanistan reflect most glaringly upon the men who committed them, the need to revisit these crimes goes beyond questions of culpability and motive in one platoon. As with Abu Ghraib and Haditha and My Lai, it’s hard not to consider how such acts also open a window onto the corroding conflicts themselves. This isn’t to suggest that military personnel are behaving similarly throughout Afghanistan as a result of the conditions there; it is only to say that 10 years into an unconventional war whose end does not appear imminent, the murder of civilians by troops that are supposed to be defending them might reveal more than the deviance of a few young soldiers in a combat zone.
Some additional helicopter noise is coming the way of residents in the vicinity of H-1 and Moanalua freeways.
The Army said it will conduct a new round of training missions Friday through May 24 to the Big Island in preparation for a January deployment to Afghanistan.
The training will result in an increase in air traffic as helicopters depart Wheeler Army Airfield, and fly east along the H-1 corridor, a route mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration, officials said.