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Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

Bacon in the chowhall and other images from Iskandariyah, Iraq, August 3-15, 2004

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In the past weeks and months, Islamic State, abetted by other armed groups, has made stunning advances across Iraq as US-built, trained, and funded Iraqi forces evaporate. Islamic State “exposed the utter rot in the Iraqi army earlier this summer,” wrote analysts at the Soufan Group. This sent me back to my journals from my 2004 embed. The seeds of today’s tragedies were germinating then, in the tragically improvised U.S. occupation and the deep sectarian divide dug by Saddam Hussein that existed before American troops rolled into Baghdad.

Then as now, a boots-on-the-ground perspective of Iraqi forces’ readiness, professionalism, and tactical skill — shaky and poor across the board— was at odds with absurdly glowing reports from top-level US commanders.

Which is why those who truly wanted to know what was happening on the street ignored them and tried to convince grunts, NCOs, and line officers to talk. Not an easy task. “It’s like I told my guys,” a naval gunfire liaison officer told me on August 14, 2004, “we came into someone else’s neighborhood and are trying to tell them how to run it.” I asked a Master Gunnery Sergeant I bunked with whether the U.S. lit the fuse that blew up Iraq. It’s “like the coyote in the cartoon . . . and now we’re fucked.” Both asked me not to use their names.

After a dismounted patrol through Iskandariyah on August 4, I wrote in my journal:

“What are the salient facts and issues stuck inside me this week? Pork is served in the chow hall, in spite of the dozen plus Muslim translators. Translators get cast-off flaks. This entire enterprise is absurd, I feel, contradictory to its core. Democracy as represented by heavily armed, non-Arabic speaking men (and boys) wearing Wylie X sunglasses. Their allies are, in some sense, desperate men or opportunists. They do not give the impression of being the bedrock of the community. The cops are scared. The Iraqi National Guard posture like thugs and petty criminals. They’re scared too. That’s why they wear masks.”

Moments before I hit “publish,” President Obama announced that he had authorized airstrikes on Islamic State military forces in Iraq.  The U.S. military is also air dropping humanitarian aid to people of the Yezidi community who are being attacked and killed by IS, he said.

“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq,” the president said, “even limited strikes like these.  I understand that.  I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done.  As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq.  And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.  The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.

“However, we can and should support moderate forces who can bring stability to Iraq.  So even as we carry out these two missions, we will continue to pursue a broader strategy that empowers Iraqis to confront this crisis.  Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like [Islamic State].”

I’m holding my breath.

Full Disclosure outtakes: Babil (2005) and Anbar (2006)

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I’m posting via Vimeo a series more favorite scenes I wasn’t able to fit into my 2008 documentary, Full Disclosure.

These scenes are from 2005 and 2006. (I didn’t shoot video in Iraq in 2004, only stills.) The first scenes focus on activities in Babil province during the run-up to the first post-Saddam election, January 31, 2005. The second chunk is from 1/2’s time in Hit, Anbar province, in early 2006.

There’s no graphic violence, but the video is still NSFW because of expletive-heavy gruntspeak and a flash of a porn magazine.

There’s No Going Back: Iraq Ten Years Later

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After my last trip to Iraq in 2006, I told myself I would return. I’d go to the places I patrolled with the marines and to the homes I stomped into and out of as an appendage of their squads. As an embedded journalist, I learned little about Iraqi people’s lives, other than what these lives looked like when instantly disrupted and upended. Next time, I would go without bulletproof vest or Kevlar helmet — and without the retinue of troops. I would listen and learn. I figured I’d be able to make this trip in five, maybe six years, once the the conflict ended or at least ebbed. But there is no end or ebb on the horizon.

U.S. Marine convoy north from Kuwait to Iraq, July 18, 2004

U.S. Marine convoy north from Kuwait to Iraq, July 18, 2004

A decade ago to this day I was rattling around the belly of an assault amphibious vehicle just a few miles into Iraq. I had overnighted with a U.S. Marine section at Camp Scania, a giant way station for military and contractor convoys heading north from Kuwait. Minutes before folding myself into the AAV, a gunnery sergeant briefed his men. “Ninety-nine percent of the people want us here,” the gunny said as I hovered with my cameras. “The other one percent, we’re going to fucking kill… Stay sharp the rest of the fucking way. Trust your training and trust your fucking senior marines.”


Marines from during north to Iraq from Kuwait, July 20, 2004

Marines from 1/2 AAV section during convoy north to Iraq from Kuwait, July 20, 2004

Iraqis harvest salt just across the border from Kuwait, July 21, 2004

Iraqis harvest salt just across the border from Kuwait, July 21, 2004

I remember rumbling past a family of salt harvesters, a young boy and girl begging, a plot of sunflowers, then a group of men washing cars along the roadside. “We pass through the first real city — buildings with stores and homes; folks on the street. I hear birds singing,” I wrote in my journal that night. ” I had prepared myself for pure desolation. This town was beat up and dusty, but still alive.

Minutes later, we pulled into Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah. It was 1430 hours, July 21, 2004.

1st Battalion/2d Marines AAV section arrives in Iskandariyah, July 21, 2004

1st Battalion/2d Marines AAV section arrives in Iskandariyah, July 21, 2004

On my second full day at FOB Iskan, mortars dropped from the air onto the far end of the base, where I was staying with the battalion’s weapons company. Grunts hustled me into the bottom of a packed bomb shelter. I heard shouting and bellowing from the entrance 30 feet away and above me.

Later, I learned that Vincent Sullivan, a marine sniper, had been killed. Others, among them a sergeant named DeBoy, had been hit by shrapnel. I asked myself then, if I had moved just one second faster, would Sullivan be alive, DeBoy unscathed?

I spent several weeks on base and off in surrounding towns—Musayyib, Haswah, and Iskandariyah. Each day, I observed the troops with Iraqis. I watched these young American men struggle and improvise without guidance, on the fly. I watched Iraqis, men and women, shrink and submit, stand up to and challenge the marines. A good day was when no one got hurt or killed, even if nothing got fixed or solved.

Boy on construction team building birthing center funded and then defunded  by U.S. Army. Marines promised to resume support — if local leaders cooperated with them. Jurf-al-Sakhar, Iraq, August 8, 2004

Boy on construction team building birthing center funded and then defunded by U.S. Army. Marines promised to resume support — if local leaders cooperated with them. Jurf-al-Sakhar, Iraq, August 8, 2004

Marines from 1/2 Bravo Co., 2nd Platoon, checking for IEDs during a routine patrol, Babil Province, Iraq, August 20, 2004

Marines from 1/2 Bravo Co., 2nd Platoon, checking for IEDs during a routine patrol, Babil Province, Iraq, August 20, 2004

I made two more trips to Iraq to cover the unit, 1st Battalion/2d Marines, in 2005 and 2006, and the impact of the occupation on Iraq.

After coming home,  I scoured the Department of Defense list of troops killed in action for familiar names once a day, and I would find some. I Googled “Iskandariyah” and the other towns every few hours. And I kept Iraq war-related sites open on my desktop, from boot-up in the morning to shutdown at night.

A year later, I checked the casualty list once a day, Iraq news three or four times.

Five years later, I surfed my way to Iraq news and the DoD list once a week, maybe.

Now, ten years on, I peek at Iraq news only when it finds me through the throbbing headlines.

July 19: “Baghdad bombings kill dozens.” “Obama’s Iraq dilemma: Fighting the ISIL puts US and Iran on the same side.” “Concern and Support for Iraqi Christians Forced by Militants to Flee Mosul.”

I Google my old places. “Iskandariyah,” the city I spent the summer of 2004 with 1st Battalion/2d Marines: June 2, a car bomb killed at least two people and injured 10. May 12: “Two police officers were killed while trying to defuse a bomb in Jurf al-Sakhar, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Baghdad.” March 18: “A bombing in Haswa killed one person. Two other people were wounded in a separate blast.”

I don’t know what to say or to do as the always-simmering violence explodes and our policymakers and pundits debate taking the same well-worn and deadly paths once again, but I would at least like to know the names of these people we call “casualties.”

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 2

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U.S. Marine searches Iraqi visitors to the Forward Operation Base Iskandariya, which surrounded Musayyib power plant, August 7, 2004

U.S. Marine searches Iraqi visitors to Forward Operating Base Iskandariya, which surrounded Musayyib city’s power plant, August 7, 2004

Iraqis, nongovernmental organizations, and others are working to rebuild Iraq and end the sectarian strife. One can’t ignore their labor and sacrifice. Recent events, including today’s bombings, remind us that they face a terrible task. Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda offshoot, took credit for the murders. Al Qaeda followed the United States into Iraq, we should remember, not the other way around. (See pages 64 through 66 of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s September 8, 2006 report.)

Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a measured 10th-anniversary piece for CNN that also appears on HRW’s website. The title: U.S. Has Self to Blame for Iraq Failures.

HRW’s E.D. for the Middle East, Sarah Leah Whitson, has an even tougher assessment:

The U.S. legacy in Iraq reflects abuses committed with impunity by American and Iraqi forces throughout the U.S.-led occupation. The abuses set in motion over 10 years ago by the Bush administration’s ‘torture memos,’ and the brutal detention policies that followed, facilitated Iraq’s creation of a system that is today either unwilling or incapable of delivering justice to its citizens.

The recent investigation by BBC Arabic and the Guardian of the U.S. role in training murderous special police commando units give these charges teeth. The head of the effort, retired U.S. Army officer Jim Steele, played a similar role in El Salvador’s U.S.-sponsored “dirty war” against leftist guerrillas.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that CIA paramilitary units are ramping up their support for Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service (CTS) as a hedge against violence spilling over the border from Syria. This is a force that reports directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has used elite units to mete out violence against his opponents and run secret prisons. The CTS, which has been “accused of committing serious abuses against detainees, worked closely with U.S. Special Forces before the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011,” Whitson writes.

WSJ‘s writers fail to raise (or their editors failed to publish) the question of oversight of the CIA effort. Given that such initiatives have gone off the human-rights rails in the past, it’s kind of an essential question. That said, they may not have bothered because the answer is obvious: There will be no substantive checks or balances.

“[O]ur power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint,” President Barack Obama said in his first inaugural address. The record shows that humility and restraint do not blossom in the darkness of extralegal policy. Obama seems to have forgotten his own words and he will sacrifice lives as a result.

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 1

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I’m traveling through Virginia working on Make the Ground Talk, my second doc. I’m pausing with Erin at our favorite Hampton coffee shop, Blend, to note the anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War.

Marine with 24th MEU, hours before crossing the  border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Marine with 24 MEU, hours before crossing the border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

U.S. forces crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq ten years ago today. The invasion toppled a dictator—and unleashed a sectarian war that continues. Our focus—the American focus—has been on the cost to us, particularly the service members killed and injured.

But the cost has been far greater for Iraqis. More to follow…

Jingo(ism) Unchained: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year. For some.

The film, now in limited release (and opening for real January 11), delivers a bounty of bangs and booms, and swaggering American heroes torturing swarthy bad guys—with no consequences—packaged in a ripping yarn.

The yarn: A waifish and improbably fragile CIA operative, played by Jessica Chastain, spends 12 years doggedly tracking Osama bin Laden, countenancing and supervising torture of detainees—beatings, waterboarding—along the way. As ZDT has it, her work led us to bin Laden’s fortress hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs dropped in and killed him and several members of his family. As she flies home alone in the belly of a military cargo plane after the deed is done, she sheds a tear. Roll credits.

Only the last part of the story line, the SEALs bit, resembles the most authoritative versions of what actually happened (much information about the operation and the intel that led to it is classified). The rest is a brutal Hollywood fantasy, a kind of jingo(ism) unchained, that stretches deep into the movie and corrupts it.

Several critics have taken a lighten up, it’s just a movie tack. Makers of fictional films have dramatic license to pump up a story, after all. Screenwriters and directors composite dreary real-life humans into a single, sexy dynamo, like Chastain’s Agent Maya, all the time. They add a boom here and a boom there, where no booms should be. No harm in that.

Problem one: The film itself asserts that ZDT is based on facts and firsthand testimony. But this is the least important flaw. The real concern for me is, there is a bar for fidelity to history— particularly such recent and raw history—that must be vaulted in a film that begins as Zero Dark Thirty does: with 911 audio from doomed callers trapped in the Towers on 9-11, which implicitly justifies what comes next. ZDT’s makers appear to have crawled under that bar without ever glancing up.

(Jane Mayer, who’s been writing about torture for the New Yorker for years, and Glenn Greenwald unravel the film’s fabric of distortion, seemingly stitch by stitch.)

Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan, among other truly dogged investigators, blazed the path to bin Laden by extracting information from al Qaeda enablers and operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He did it by talking to them.

“Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present,” Soufan wrote in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.”

Soufan continues: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” Soufan also notes that many Americans assigned to investigations and detainee interrogation, including CIA agents, objected to the torture that was being carried out.

A long line of men and women who are in a position to know what happened have stepped up to challenge ZDT’s adaptation of real-life events, including some of our elected officials.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and raging liberal John McCain have taken on ZDT directly in a letter to the director: “Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.” They’re not denying that torture took place. The senators are saying, unequivocally, that the true road to bin Laden did not begin, as it does in the film, with the violent extraction of vital information by a charming and strategically cruel CIA agent through beatings and waterboarding. “Everyone breaks in the end,” the interrogator tells his captive. “It’s biology.” This is, of course, untrue. Not everybody breaks. Most people lie. And some people die.

All three senators serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which recently completed a 6,000-page report, approved by a nine-to-six vote, that also states torture did not play a role in the mission to kill bin Laden.

Journalist Mark Bowden, however, writes in his recent book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden that two detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani, did in fact provide actionable intelligence when tortured that aided the bin Laden hunt. “It should […] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods.”

Assuming that Bowden is correct and that some information was beaten or boarded out of Qahtani and Slahi, others in the know like Soufan tell us that using brain, not brawn—or dogs or Metallica cranked to 11—elicits better information more reliably.

Ultimately, torture boomerangs on the nation that authorizes it—us—by inciting others to retributive violence and fouling bona fide efforts to root out terrorism, not just kill terrorists (or those suspected of being terrorists).

We tortured Qahtani,” Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official who oversaw military commissions for Guantanamo detainees, told the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”

“War crimes charges against Mr. al Qahtani have been dismissed but may be refiled,” the NY Times reported recently.

“Of the cases I had seen, he was the one with the most blood on his hands,” Stuart Couch, the Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi (also rendered Salahi), told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

But: “Col. Couch would uncover evidence [that] the prisoner had been beaten and exposed to psychological torture, including death threats and intimations that his mother would be raped in custody unless he cooperated,” reporter Jesse Bravin wrote. Couch told his commander he was “morally opposed” to the methods used on Slahi, and declined to the take the case.

“I’m hoping there’s some non-tainted evidence out there that can put the guy in the hole,” Couch said. Both Qatani and Slahi have been held in limbo at Guantanamo for more than 10 years.

The Senate Select Committee’s report is classified, but may be released one day. That said, we will never know the whole story. The CIA’s former deputy director of operations, Jose Rodriguez, who has asserted for the record (and in his own book, Hard Measures) that torture works, destroyed videotapes documenting “coercive interrogation.” Ninety-two tapes, he told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.

Zero Dark Thirty does terrible violence to the story on which it is based, the real story of the hunt for bin Laden. It popularizes a narrative that justifies inhumane and self-defeating practices. Fundamentally, in my view, it does a disservice to those who died trying to track down bin Laden the right way, and it dishonors those who lost their lives to the terrorist himself.

U.S. Navy Psyops — In American Theaters Now!

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Psychological operations are planned operations to convey selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, objective reasoning, and ultimately the behavior of foreign governments, organizations, groups, and individuals. The purpose of psychological operations is to induce or reinforce foreign attitudes and behavior favorable to the originator’s objectives. Also called PSYOP.Department of Defense Joint Publication 1-02

In January, the United States Navy celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Sea-Air-Land commandos — the now legendary SEALs. A month later, Act of Valor hit 3000 movie theaters across the country. It earned more than $24 million in its first weekend, blasting it to the top of box-office charts.

On the surface, AOV appears to be familiar merchandise, a big (though lowish-budget), dumb action flick marinated in testosterone and an American-might-is-right ethos. Everything in that description fits, except the “dumb” part.

After a sorry attempt to introduce and humanize the main characters, all SEALs — they cannot act, and so become indistinguishable from one another — AOV gets down to its cinematic business: serving up hot and riveting combat spectacle. Helmet cams send us into freefall with the special operators on a high-altitude, low-opening (HALO) parachute jump. We then glide up a Costa Rican river with coolheaded Naval Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen (SWCCs from here on out) in heavily armed boats to extract a SEAL element that’s taking withering bad-guy fire after rescuing a kidnapped CIA agent.

The boat’s GAU 17/M134D Gatling gun whirs like a monstrous mechanical bumblebee as it spits out 3000+ rounds a minute from its six barrels. The rounds perforate the thin steel sides of the thugs’ vehicles with pitter-patter pings. A pickup truck becomes a colander with wheels. (Presumably the rounds make a different sound when hitting people, but there’s too much noise in the sound mix to hear that, if it’s there at all.)

The action feels real because it is real — or at least kind of real. Active-duty SEALs and SWCCs play the lead roles and conduct these jaw-dropping operations — that’s AOV’s sole, yet boffo selling point. The ops are all the more convincing because the SEALs planned and executed them as actual training exercises. Live-fire exercises. (In real life, SEALs refer to themselves as “quiet professionals.” The Navy admits that the men who appear in AOV had to be compelled to step into the limelight by their commanders.)

Action filmmakers often collaborate with the Pentagon to get their hands on weapons of war — not just guns, but tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. To keep their precious privileges, directors carve out bits of dialogue and plot the military finds objectionable, off-message, or just plain despicable, even if they’re true. A scene in World War II movie Windtalkers where a U.S. marine wrenches gold teeth from the mouth of a dead Japanese soldier? Cut. There is a very long list of such films: Top Gun, Clear and Present Danger, Independence Day, G.I. Jane, and so on. (See David L. Robb’s book Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies.)

Sometimes these relationships sour, particularly if the screenplay heads in a direction military policymakers don’t like and stays there. That happened with Hurt Locker. (Films that are critical from the jump and stay that way such as Platoon and Apocalypse Now get no military love and must scrounge up hardware in places equipped by the U.S. like Thailand and the Philippines.)

AOV blows way past any sort of traditional military-civilian partnership. In fact, it harkens back to World War II when Frank Capra directed the Why We Fight series of propaganda films for the War Department, movies like Prelude to War and The Nazis Strike as well as the remarkably progressive The Negro Soldier. (Watch it online!) Unlike the civilian filmmakers who give us AOV, however, Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, Capra was a U.S. Army officer. It was his duty to create propaganda to serve the war effort.

AOV may be making money hand over fist — $58 million in the U.S. as of March 14 — but it is much, much more than a commercial product. It is the fruit of long-term naval strategy, brilliant operational planning, and flawless tactical employment.

Together with the Navy’s information office, Naval Special Warfare Command created the concept for AOV. The public affairs folks at NSW describe the genesis of the movie with martial clarity. “With an urgent requirement for more SEALs, NSW decided to take an innovative approach to its recruiting efforts,” reads an article in Ethos, NSW Command’s unclassified magazine. “One of those innovations was to grant access to a filmmaker who could credibly provide a compelling and accurate window into the Teams.”

NSW solicited proposals from three production companies to make AOV and settled on Bandito Brothers, the company run by McCoy and Waugh, which makes extreme sports videos. (Collider.com has a good interview with the filmmakers, who tell us, among other things, that the film was completed before SEAL Team 6 paid a nighttime visit to Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad and killed him.)

“It was initially started as a recruiting film, so that we could help recruit minorities into teams,” Admiral Bill McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, said a few weeks ago. This explains why the SEAL element we see on screen is so uncommonly brown and black. The actual SEAL force — and all U.S. special ops components — is overwhelmingly white.

NSW reviewed all the 1700 hours of footage for operational security reasons — high-ranking navy commanders have struggled to reassure critics within the military community that no classified special forces tactics, techniques, or procedures are revealed in the movie. They also stress that no taxpayer money was spent on AOV.

There’s more: NSW secured from the directors an agreement “to provide NSW with the entire catalogue of raw footage to repurpose for the Navy’s own use following the release of the movie,” according to the Ethos article. Not bad for zero money down.

AOV might not be a gripping tale, but it’s damn sure a ripping ride. I marveled at the technical complexity of the combat sequences — 15 cameras for one scene! I nodded in recognition as the “actors” delivered their lines like well-meaning robots because I’ve heard earnest young lieutenant-types deliver their talking points in the same dutiful tone. And after one scene, I cried. For real.

But I also hung my head in disbelief as the chaotic plot unloaded, and I cringed at the awful stereotypes. Kurt Johnstad, AOV’s screenwriter — and the guy who gave the world 300, a bloody romp set in ancient Persia — manages to squeeze in a phalanx of walking clichés. We get a psychotic Muslim terrorist, a nearly amoral Ukrainian Jewish smuggler (he’s the film’s only multidimensional character), and scheming Mexican narcos. Since diversity seems to be the order of the day, Johnstad could have thrown in a Simon Mann-like Brit mercenary. Or a venal non-Jewish arms dealer — Viktor Bout, a Russian now awaiting sentencing in a New York City prison for conspiring to kill American citizens and officials, comes to mind. Or perhaps a corrupt U.S. congressman based on the real-life Randy “Duke” Cunningham, who was convicted of taking bribes from not one, not two, but three defense contractors. And to be fair, I can’t leave out my African brothers: Johnstad could also have crammed in a demented and homicidal Ugandan warlord like Joseph Kony.

The problem with AOV runs deeper than its many layers of lameness and naval provenance. While the physical terrain the SEALs navigate and dominate in AOV is visually rich, the figurative terrain of the film is flat, dull, empty. There are no political, legal, humanitarian, or ethical dilemmas. There’s no sense of history, place, culture, nothing to give the film any resonance or cohesion, just fiery displays of tactical excellence and depictions of individual heroism. This is not an accident.

More than just a shiny digital fishing lure cast in front of enlistment-age boys, AOV functions as both justification for and promotion of a dangerous policy, the frequent dispatching of clandestine warriors to do the dirty, secret, and often extralegal work of the administration. This very old practice was updated and popularized by Dick Cheney (and George Bush) and has been dramatically expanded by President Barack Obama.

Examined in this light, the movie’s flaws become virtues. Troublesome moral, political, historical crap is cleared away, leaving nothing that would allow the viewer to generate just a little empathy for anyone other than the American heroes — say, perhaps, a civilian trapped in the crossfire or on the despoiled battlefield. Without such vital, real-world context, the SEALs become superhuman cartoon warriors, “our nation’s avenging angels,” as Vice President Joe Biden called all special ops forces in 2011. This is dangerous hagiography. Guardians protect democracy. Avengers, especially ones for whom the administration claims divine sanction, imperil it.

Roughly 60,000 US Special Forces personnel operate in 80-odd countries — these are the ones revealed publicly — on a $10 billion budget. “Special forces assist teams” are now working in five South Asian countries — Bangladesh, Nepal, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and India — the head of U.S. Pacific Command announced a few days ago. That’s on top of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Who knew? This item made the news in the U.K. and South Asia — a friend in Bangladesh sent me a link — but not here.

Now would be a perfect time for us to consider how successive American presidents, particularly the current one, use our secret troops as global policemen — and extralegal assassins. AOV is anything but a catalyst for such a discussion. It’s a giant ideological pillow that both comforts Americans and smothers our critical thinking. It a USA-first children’s story — explosive, cathartic, and reassuring — executive produced by naval commanders. The message: Why think? The avenging angels will take care of us.

And now we come to the crying…

— Spoiler Alert —

In the movie’s penultimate scene, Lieutenant Rorke, a stalwart and courageous SEAL who is barely distinguishable from the film’s other stalwart and courageous main character, leaps onto a grenade tossed at his team by one of the Mexican drug henchmen. Rorke is blown off the floor to waist height. A pool of blood flows from beneath him and spreads slowly across the floor. Cut to an extreme close-up of his open eyes. His lids droop, and then open again, this time dead and staring. At his funeral, team members honor the LT; his equally stalwart wife suffers silently. This is when I teared up.

My first day in Iraq in 2004, I watched a marine bleed out, just as the fictional lieutenant did. I knew other marines who were later killed in action. I count wounded marines among my friends. Perhaps this is why the scene hit me so hard. But my personal history aside, this sequence is by far the movie’s most nuanced and moving. It works unlike anything else in AOV aside from the bang-bang.

What I would call a skillful penetration of my intellectual defenses and a straight-up manipulation of my emotions, Navy brass would call a successful psyop. This is precisely why Act of Valor is so frightening.


I crossed paths with Rachel Maddow today

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I was bursting through the opening doors of an R train as Maddow walked toward the subway car. Like any smart and mindful commuter, she approached at a sharp angle to avoid the stream of agitated New Yorkers exploding from the train, of which, I will say proudly, I was at the head.

I was moving like a man with a double shot of espresso under his belt, which is precisely the man I was, so I didn’t have time to register much, only her furrowed brow, horn rims, and a scarf (tartan or checked?).

I climbed the stairway to Broadway imagining what I might have said to Maddow — not that I would have said anything even if I had been less caffeinated. Chatting up high-wattage celebs, even fellow journos, feels to me like star-slurping, more commonly known as brown-nosing. I’m too proud, and I doubt Maddow would have been especially inclined to spend quality time in conversation with a random subway rider.

But had I found the combination of gumption and humility to bust such a move, I might have hopped back on the train, gently introduced myself to her, and then posed a few polite and sagacious questions — with an eye toward, say, an invitation to appear on the show.

“Ms. Maddow, may I ask whether you’ll be discussing former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s smackdown of Juan Williams, to the cheers of the South Carolinian audience, at last night’s debate?”

That was an absolutely arresting moment, one I’ll point to if someone tells me that the Republican presidential race is not, at least in part (a huge part), about Barack Obama’s race. Williams could have called the former Speaker’s race-card bluff, his claim that Obama is the “food-stamp president” with facts, but he didn’t.

Participation rates in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, the name for the Federal food stamp program since 2008, rose seven out of the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency. And, according to the Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, “the large increase in the number of participants was likely attributable to the deterioration of the economy, expansions in SNAP eligibility, and continued outreach efforts.” (Be warned: This SNAP link leads to a PDF.) At the very least, this gives us two food-stamp presidents, the first who hobbled the economy by launching two wars and handing out tax cuts to the one percent, and the second who inherited those wars and has kept one going at full steam.

I might also have asked her whether she’d be tackling Rick Perry’s doubling down on his criticism of President Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and others in the administration for condemning the acts depicted in the infamous scout-sniper urinating video.

“When the secretary of defense calls that a despicable act, when he calls that utterly despicable,” Perry charged, “let me tell you what is utterly despicable: cutting Danny Pearl’s head off and showing the video, hanging our contractors from bridges, that’s utterly despicable. For our president, for the secretary of state, for the Department of Defense secretary to make those kinds of statements about those young marines, yes they need to be punished, but when you see this president with that type of disdain for our country, taking a trillion dollars out of our defense budget, a hundred thousand of our military off of our front lines? I lived through a reduction of forces once and I saw the results of it in the sands of Iran in 1979.”

First of all: Daniel Pearl and murdered military contractors? To appropriate these tragedies for his own political point-scoring is a desecration.

Secondly, “disdain for our country?” Slam Obama’s policies, but to attack his loyalty to America is simply cowardly and deceitful. The esteemed journalists on the debate panel could have reality- or morality-checked Perry. But they didn’t. And they didn’t challenge him on the facts, either.

“Adjusting for inflation, the level of funding proposed for the base defense budget in the FY 2012 request is the highest level since World War II, surpassing the Cold War peak of $531 billion (in FY 2012 dollars) reached in FY 1985.” That’s according to CSBA, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. What the administration’s 2012 budget proposes to cut, too timidly and gently in my view, is the growth rate of our alarmingly bloated military spending, which peaked in 2007, and funds spent on war, war, war.

The media inquisitors also might have quoted General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, on the incident behind Perry’s initial smear.

“I have viewed an internet video that depicts Marines desecrating several dead Taliban in Afghanistan. I want to be clear and unambiguous, the behavior depicted in the video is wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history.”

Note the verb the general, the highest-ranking US Marine, uses to characterize the actions.

Amos continues: “Rest assured that the institution of the Marine Corps will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved. We remain fully committed to upholding the Geneva Convention, the Laws of War, and our own core values.”

High standards and values. The presidential candidates and the journalists ostensibly covering them would benefit from a helping of both.

I’m not sure I would have impressed Maddow, but I would have unburdened myself of this maddening, absurd, and frightening stuff. For the moment, at least.

Iraqi Army barracks tour and Omar & Bravo Part 2

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This video is an assemblage of three clips from 2006 that we couldn’t fit into the doc.

The first two are segments of a tour Iraqi Army soldiers gave me of their quarters at 1/2 Charlie Company’s Firm Base 1.

Number three is a second scene from 1/2 Bravo’s encounter with the Anbari college student Omar. In this one, they discuss (American) popular music.

The grunts, IAs, and Omar are clearly consciousness of me and my camera. They perform, as many (all?) of us do when there’s a lens trained on us. This camera consciousness made me uncomfortable as I screened the videotape the first half dozen times, but I realized that such performances were as meaningful as the candid moments — or moments in which folks appeared to be unaware of the video camera but could very well have been calculating and acting.

The IAs direct their mordant jokes and complaints at me and through me to the presumed American audience. Omar and the boys of Bravo are ostensibly communicating among themselves, but they too are calibrating their statements for the “reporter guy” and the people in the U.S. who will see the video. There’s a heap of subtext the men dance around, under, and on top of — the issue of race springs to mind. This verbal shimmying and jiving is funny, ironic, absurd, poignant, and telling.

Agree? Disagree? Weigh in with a comment below!

AND: This will be my final prodding. Voting for Best of Doc 2011 ends in two days. Please cast your final digi-ballots for Full Disclosure!

1/2 Charlie Co. & Chicken Lady

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This sequence, edited by Rachel Shuman and Adam Bolt, was built from footage I shot on one of the first patrols I videotaped. Of all the scenes we had to cut, I was saddest to lose this one. It captures, from a boots-in-the-mud perspective, the perpetual miscommunication between our troops and Iraqi civilians and the general absurdity of the mission.

First Battalion/Second Marine Regiment was nearing the end of its 2004-05 deployment to northern Babil province. Iraq’s first national election since Saddam Hussein’s toppling was two weeks away. Anti-US forces, particularly Sunni militant groups like Hizb al Awda and Ansar al Sunna, had promised violence. “This ain’t the fucking Republicans and Democrats,” Col. Ron Johnson, commander of 1/2’s parent unit, the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, remarked in his characteristically colorful style about the growing Sunni-Shia conflict during a briefing for me and two other journalists.

Days after 1/2 left Babil—and before the unit had even shipped out from Kuwait—a car bomb rocked Musayyib Hospital. Eighteen people were killed. The patrol base Bravo Company set up for the election had been next door, in the Musayyib Police Station.

Less than six months later, a suicide-bomb blast in Musayyib (also rendered as Mussayab or Mussaib) killed more than a 100 people, all Iraqi.

“I knew the spot, an intersection in the city’s center,” I wrote in a 2005 blog post. “I had walked or driven through it a dozen times with grunts… There’s a beautiful mosque right at the crossroads.” The bomb had been planted in a fuel tanker nearby. “The blast ignited the fuel inside the truck, turning what might have been a sadly typical tragedy into mass slaughter.

“In November 2005, bombers attacked the same mosque, killing 20 and wounding 64.”

And so on through the years: December 18, 2011: “A sticky bomb attached to a car exploded when the driver entered a bus terminal…”

I can’t say with any assurance what life is like in Musayyib now. Just as it was in 2005, finding stories about the city (in English) that aren’t about violence and death is very difficult.