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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.

Shouting Truth to Power at NDU

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I immediately recognized the top of Medea Benjamin’s blond head on my computer screen as she was being dragged out of President Barack Obama’s May 23rd address at the National Defense University. Benjamin is well known on Capitol Hill for her activism with Code Pink, specifically their antiwar protests and pickets that disrupt hearings and other official goings-on.

I had interviewed Benjamin in the late 1990s for a Fortune magazine piece about corporate social responsibility. Then, she was working with another social justice group she helped create, Global Exchange. The day after the president’s NDU speech, though, Benjamin was “The Heckler.”

Let’s be clear about our terms. Heckling is spewing insults at a stand-up comic under cover of darkness after six scotch and sodas too many. Benjamin, a veteran human rights campaigner and an antiwar activist—and the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control—was protesting. (USA Today called her a “protester” who “heckles.”) She was practicing the venerable and always controversial art of nonviolent civil disobedience to bring attention to—and intervene in—an issue of great importance to society. Such actions are, by definition, disruptive of business as usual—in this case a presidential address to the American public about national security to which the American public had not been invited.

Before making an appearance on Arise News to talk about the president’s speech, I called Benjamin to find out why she did what she did. [Here’s the link to the Arise segment, and to the entire show.]

“I was waiting until the very end,” Benjamin told me. She was waiting for him to say something “significant,” for specifics, not just the “standard blaming of Congress.” But she didn’t hear that.

So Benjamin interrupted our president: “There are 102 people on a hunger strike, these desperate people. Eighty-six are cleared for release. You are commander in chief. You can close Guantánamo today, and you can release those 86 prisoners!”

Who are the 86 Benjamin refers to? Ask Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, as the Voice of America did. “Of the 166 [prisoners] that are still there, there are 86 that have been cleared for transfer, which means that a joint task force made up of the CIA, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Defense unanimously agreed that these 86 men didn’t commit a crime, we don’t intend to charge them, they don’t pose an imminent threat and we don’t want to keep them,” Davis told VOA.

The president doesn’t need to wait for Congress, nor does he need to issue an executive order to transfer the remaining prisoners from Guantánamo, where more than 100 prisoners are on a hunger strike. Thirty are being force-fed. Obama could issue a national security waiver to override restrictions Congress has placed on transfers,  Benjamin said. That’s what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the president—in a confidential memo leaked to the press, described in a Daily Beast article by Daniel Klaidman.

“Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives?” Benjamin shouted at Obama. “Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?”

These are questions of life and death, particularly for those on the business end of U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan, Yemen, and anywhere the administration chooses to exercise its still-classified policy of targeted killing. Questions to which the president provided no definitive answers.

Update from the Producer/Directors of Make the Ground Talk

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A few Saturdays ago, we led an audience at William and Mary’s Lemon Project Symposium on an audiovisual tour of the research we’ve done for our documentary, Make the Ground Talk. Our show started where we began our actual journey: Camp Peary, the military base that seventy years ago swallowed Magruder, the town where Brian’s father and his parents were born, and where the grave of his great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, still lies.

One of the most important things we’ve learned during our months of reading, talking, and filming—other than that Mat was a Union Army vet who had been a slave—is that many other historic black Tidewater communities were uprooted and displaced, usually by Uncle Sam, in the 20th century. Land was seized both by the government through eminent domain and by “market forces,” often large institutions that applied the tremendous economic and political power they wielded in pre–Civil Rights America.

We shared with folks at W&M—many Palmers as well as academics and others who have guided us this far—a realization we had a few months into our work. To do justice to the small story, that of Magruder and Brian’s family, we needed to tackle the much larger one: the series of evictions that erased a constellation of communities connected by family, church, and other fundamental bonds.

After the talk—we think it went well—we spent another week in Virginia, using Hampton as our base once again, to explore new places and meet people with stories about communities like Magruder, Uniontown, and Acretown. Najla Kurani told us how her grandparents, white folks who moved to Magruder from Indiana (by way of Panama!), found their property, coaxed food out of the poor soil, and then lost it to the Navy when everyone else did. With his wife, Louise, Brian’s cousin Horace Smith led us through Bible study, our first, and vividly described life in Grove, the place where many black Magruderites like the Palmers resettled. The club at Grove’s Log Cabin Beach on the James River was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the network of nightclubs across the South where black entertainers—Fats Domino, Little Richard, B.B. King, and many others—performed for black folks, who were banned from white clubs. The club’s DJ had a slogan, which Rev. Horace bellowed for us at his kitchen table: “Everybody’s gabbin’ about Log Cabin!”

But the archives were calling us, too. Family historians, women like Brian’s late Aunt Ethelyn and late cousin Jean who laid the foundation for our work, have said that the Palmers originated in Amelia County. Knowledge passed verbally from forbears tells us this. But there’s also some documentary evidence: A marriage register from York County lists Brian’s great-grandfather Mat’s parents, Winnie and Lewis, and his place of birth, Amelia. Other documents, though—actual affidavits attached to Mat’s Union Army pension application—point to Goochland County (which we visited in November). So we headed west to the Amelia County Clerk’s office to hunt for answers.

We’d been told this was the red (as in Romney, not Lenin, red) part of the state, so we’d braced ourselves for a tepid reception in both Amelia and neighboring Nottoway County, where we stayed. While hardly Kumbaya country, the small town of Blackstone is almost exactly half African American, half white. Cars in the Grey Swan Inn’s gravel lot sported Obama-Biden bumper stickers. Turns out these cars belonged to our lovely innkeepers, Jim and Christine Hasbrouck. (Even better, Jim roasts his own coffee. Need we say more?)

Amelia has a slightly different feel. Perhaps it’s the monument to the “Confederate Dead” smack in the middle of town, in front of the courthouse. At the antiques shop across the street, we came face to face with a man-size Sambo-esque statue to which someone—perhaps the shoppe’s frosty owner—has affixed a handwritten note in “dialect” talkin’ ’bout “massa.” The rotund figure is merely the largest in a collection of Jim Crow–era curios.

That said, our guide to the clerk’s archives, Juanita Booker, was African American, as were Leroy and Sylvia Hatcher, the proprietors of our lunch spot, Hatcher’s Dining and Catering—which is separated from Mammy Land by a tiny parking lot. We haven’t gotten used to these juxtapositions.

At the clerk’s office, we dug into ancient deed books, marriage registers, and volumes of wills in search of Mat Palmer’s parents. Since slaves were property and recorded as such in documents, we searched the names of potential owners, beginning with the Hobsons, the Goochland family that owned Mat. Dig, dig, dig. Sigh, sigh, sigh. Harrumph. Then, a familiar name: Maben, a family with multiple connections to the Hobsons. Erin found the names “Winney” and “Lewis No. 2”—one of three Lewises— and “child William,” in the will of one David Maben. We levitated and beamed for a few seconds, despite the shock of seeing these names listed among feather beds and farm animals. These may or may not be our Winnie—Winney?—and Lewis, but we’ve found one more thread to follow on our journey.

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk's office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk’s office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Our next tasks: create a reel with segments of our strongest interviews and other video imagery, and—wait for it—our first fund-raising push. We’ll be setting up on either Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Stay tuned.

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…

From the BXP photo archives: White House beat, 1995; Million Man March, 1995

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Counter Sniper Unit, US Secret Service Uniformed Division, California, May 21, 1995

Counter Sniper Support Unit, US Secret Service Uniformed Division, California, May 21, 1995

I spent a lot of time documenting political theater during my nearly three years as a Washington, DC-based photographer for US News & World Report—on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, at the White House, and on the road with POTUS Bill Clinton.

I didn’t realize how extensively the national media colluded with those in power to produce photo ops and events until being a colluder myself. The apex was a trip to Hawaii with a White House advance team and other members of the national press corps. Our job: visit the venues for presidential speeches and other for-camera events and work with WH staffers to make the set look as good—as presidential—as possible.

For one outdoor address, official event planners had positioned the president’s podium with the sun behind it, which meant that the cameras collected on the press riser would be pointed directly into the glare. We got that taken care of, thank you very much.

Like many of the other thinking journalists on the beat, I enjoyed photographing the moments where the man behind the curtain was revealed. I shot the above photo of members of the Secret Service’s Counter Sniper Support Unit  on a rooftop behind Air Force One just before Clinton (and the press corps) left California after a series of events.

But US News provided me with many other amazing, even life-defining opportunities. Being posted to China was one of these. Of the domestic moments, though, one of the most important was covering the Million Man March. Although it was organized by the separatist Nation of Islam—which scared some people away and incited critics to tar the event before it occurred—the day was a rare and unprecedented celebration among black men. It was an opportunity to connect on their (our) own terms rather than ones carved out for us.

Traffic sign with enhancements, Washington, DC, September 23, 1995

Traffic sign with enhancements, Washington, DC, September 23, 1995

Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Fruit of Islam member at the end of the Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Fruit of Islam at the end of the Million Man March, October 16, 1995

A Tree Grows in Hampton

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Emancipation Oak, Hampton University campus, January 1, 2013

Emancipation Oak, Hampton University campus, January 1, 2013, Erin Hollaway Palmer photo

We spent much of our last day in Virginia under the Emancipation Oak on the Hampton University campus. The weather was borderline miserable—wet, cold, gray—but it was the right place to be. It was also the right time to be there: 150 years from the day the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

People gathered beneath this tree in January 1863 to hear the Proclamation read for the first time in the South. Among the listeners were men and women who had escaped from bondage and sought freedom behind Union Army lines, in places like Hampton’s Ft. Monroe, a Union stronghold in secessionist Virginia. By the end of the Civil War, tens of thousands of African Americans had fled to the safety of the fort and its environs.

Ft. Monroe map by E. Sachse & Co., 1862

Ft. Monroe map by E. Sachse & Co., 1862

Long before the Proclamation, in May 1861, Union General Benjamin Butler had refused to return the escaped men and women to slaveholders. He shrewdly claimed these people as “contraband of war.” Wartime law allowed Butler to seize the “property” of those rebelling against the United States, and that’s precisely what Confederates considered their slaves to be.

"Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of "contrabands" at Foller's house," May 14, 1862, Photo by James F. Gibson, from the Library of Congress

“Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of ‘contrabands’ at Foller’s house,” May 14, 1862, Photo by James F. Gibson, from Library of Congress

While the strength and dignity of self-liberated black folks is made plain by photos such as the one above, it’s clear from cartoons that even “enlightened” journalists clung to patronizing and racist stereotypes—though you gotta love the bare-chested brother blowing a raspberry at Rhett Butler (no relation to Benjamin).

Political cartoon, circa 1861, from Library of Congress

Political cartoon, circa 1861, from Library of Congress

Harpers Weekly cartoon, June 29, 1861

Harper’s Weekly cartoon, June 29, 1861

Those gathered beneath the Oak had freed themselves, but they’d only stay free if the Union won the war. Historian Eric Foner reminds us in his op-ed in the New Year’s day issue of the New York Times that the Proclamation “could not even be enforced in most of the areas where it applied, which were under Confederate control.” But the document signaled Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to eradicating slavery and was a giant step toward the 13th Amendment, ratified at the end of 1865.

People started calling Ft. Monroe “Freedom’s Fortress,” and waves of so-called “contrabands” converged, and then dispersed across the area. They founded several communities radiating from Hampton; some, like the one that grew around the fort, were dubbed “Slabtown” for the ersatz materials freedmen used to build their shelters. More than a few of my ancestors undoubtedly settled in these encampments, which grew into towns. We visited the site of Yorktown’s Slabtown on our trip.

A path through what was once Slabtown, Yorktown, VA, December 31, 2012

A path through what was once Slabtown, Yorktown, VA, December 31, 2012

On our drive home north on Route 13, we passed through New Church, Virginia, on the border with Maryland. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this store, but each time the glowing sign reminds us of the durability and insidiousness of the Rebel myth.

Dixieland minmart/gas station, New Church, VA, January 1, 2013

Dixieland minimart/gas station, New Church, VA, January 1, 2013, Erin Hollaway Palmer photo

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

with 8 comments

Really.

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.