John Arquilla writes: Today marks the bicentennial of the culminating catastrophe that befell the Grande Armée as it retreated from Russia. This past weekend one of the French Emperor’s descendants, Charles Napoleon, traveled to Minsk in Belarus to attend ceremonies commemorating the disaster at the nearby Beresina River crossing, where thousands died — many by drowning — in a final, panicked rout in freezing weather. Bonaparte had marched deep into Russia with nearly half a million soldiers; he returned with less than 25,000.
Given that Napoleon was the great captain of his time — perhaps of all time — and that his armies had conquered and held most of Europe, the tragic events on the Beresina demand explanation. His defeat is something of a puzzle, too, as the Grande Armée won the campaign’s pitched battles fought at Smolensk and Borodino. Harsh winter weather, the commonly assumed culprit, cannot explain the result either; the first frost didn’t arrive to bedevil the retreat until just a few weeks before the Beresina crossing.
The answer to the puzzle is that Napoleon and his forces were beaten by what a young Russian hussar, Denis Davydov, called his “indestructible swarm” of Cossacks and other raiders who constantly harried the French columns on the march. They also struck relentlessly, repeatedly, and to fatal effect at the Grande Armée‘s supply lines. As David Chandler, an eminent historian of Napoleon’s campaigns, put it: “raids of Cossacks and partisan bands did more harm to the Emperor than all the endeavors of the regular field armies of Holy Russia.”
Davydov, who probably inspired Tolstoy’s character “Denisov” in War and Peace, had lobbied his superiors hard for the creation of a small force of behind-the-lines raiders. General Pyotr Bagration, not long before his death in battle at Borodino, gave Davydov permission to launch his swarm — though he detached only a single troop of riders to accompany him. This was all that Davydov needed, though, as he picked up Cossacks, freed Russian soldiers taken prisoner, and recruited willing peasants along the way. Soon the French knew no rest. In Davydov’s own words, they “had no choice but to retreat, preceded and surrounded by partisans.”
The Beresina bicentennial provides us a moment to contemplate one of history’s greatest military debacles from an alternative point of view: as an outcome driven not by the clash of hundreds of thousands of troops massed tightly on some constricted battlefield, but rather as the result of constant pinprick attacks from all directions, mounted by a relative handful of irregulars. Who acted like a swarm of bees.
Davydov’s concept of operations portended an entirely different approach to military affairs, one that would grow ever more valuable with the advance of technology. The Russian partisans of 1812 attacked French wagon convoys. Fifty years later, in the Civil War, Confederate raiders disrupted rail lines, imposing near-fatal delays on the advance of Federal forces. In World War I, T.E. Lawrence and his Arab irregulars swarmed the 800-mile-long rail line from Damascus to Medina, contributing mightily to the eventual Turkish collapse. At sea in World War II, U-boat wolf packs swarmed Allied convoys, nearly winning the war for Hitler.
Throughout the Cold War, and on into the post-9/11 era, the swarm — simultaneous attack from several directions — has been the favored fighting method of insurgents and terrorists. [Continue reading...]
Chris Hedges gave this talk Sunday night in New York City at a protest denouncing the 11th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. The event, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, was led by Veterans for Peace.
Many of us who are here carry within us death. The smell of decayed and bloated corpses. The cries of the wounded. The shrieks of children. The sound of gunfire. The deafening blasts. The fear. The stench of cordite. The humiliation that comes when you surrender to terror and beg for life. The loss of comrades and friends. And then the aftermath. The long alienation. The numbness. The nightmares. The lack of sleep. The inability to connect to all living things, even to those we love the most. The regret. The repugnant lies mouthed around us about honor and heroism and glory. The absurdity. The waste. The futility.
It is only the maimed that finally know war. And we are the maimed. We are the broken and the lame. We ask for forgiveness. We seek redemption. We carry on our backs this awful cross of death, for the essence of war is death, and the weight of it digs into our shoulders and eats away at our souls. We drag it through life, up hills and down hills, along the roads, into the most intimate recesses of our lives. It never leaves us. Those who know us best know that there is something unspeakable and evil many of us harbor within us. This evil is intimate. It is personal. We do not speak its name. It is the evil of things done and things left undone. It is the evil of war.
We do not speak of war. War is captured only in the long, vacant stares, in the silences, in the trembling fingers, in the memories most of us keep buried deep within us, in the tears.
It is impossible to portray war. Narratives, even anti-war narratives, make the irrational rational. They make the incomprehensible comprehensible. They make the illogical logical. They make the despicable beautiful. All words and images, all discussions, all films, all evocations of war, good or bad, are an obscenity. There is nothing to say. [Continue reading...]
The Associated Press reports: Suicides are surging among America’s troops, averaging nearly one a day this year — the fastest pace in the nation’s decade of war.
The 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of the year far outdistance the U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan — about 50 percent more — according to Pentagon statistics obtained by The Associated Press.
The numbers reflect a military burdened with wartime demands from Iraq and Afghanistan that have taken a greater toll than foreseen a decade ago. The military also is struggling with increased sexual assaults, alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other misbehavior.
Because suicides had leveled off in 2010 and 2011, this year’s upswing has caught some officials by surprise.
The reasons for the increase are not fully understood. Among explanations, studies have pointed to combat exposure, post-traumatic stress, misuse of prescription medications and personal financial problems. Army data suggest soldiers with multiple combat tours are at greater risk of committing suicide, although a substantial proportion of Army suicides are committed by soldiers who never deployed.
The unpopular war in Afghanistan is winding down with the last combat troops scheduled to leave at the end of 2014. But this year has seen record numbers of soldiers being killed by Afghan troops, and there also have been several scandals involving U.S. troop misconduct.
The 2012 active-duty suicide total of 154 through June 3 compares to 130 in the same period last year, an 18 percent increase. And it’s more than the 136.2 suicides that the Pentagon had projected for this period based on the trend from 2001-2011. This year’s January-May total is up 25 percent from two years ago, and it is 16 percent ahead of the pace for 2009, which ended with the highest yearly total thus far.
Suicide totals have exceeded U.S. combat deaths in Afghanistan in earlier periods, including for the full years 2008 and 2009.
Here are some numbers to remember this Memorial Day: Although only 1 percent of Americans have served during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, former service members represent 20 percent of suicides in the United States — 18 veterans kill themselves everyday. Close to a million veterans currently have pending disability claims.
Christian Science Monitor reports: Despite the end of the Iraq war and the scheduled drawdown in Afghanistan, this Memorial Day arrives against a backdrop of deepening – and some say more troublesome – antiwar sentiment among military veterans.
One of the most vivid and replayed images of protesters at the NATO summit last weekend in Chicago was a group of some 40 vets lined up to toss their war medals over the chain link fence to protest what former naval officer Leah Bolger calls “the illegal wars of both NATO and America.”
According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 33 percent of post-9/11 veterans say that neither the war in Iraq nor in Afghanistan “were worth the cost,” and this among a highly motivated cohort who chose to serve.
What this means, says retired US Army Col. Ann Wright, who resigned from a State Department post in 2006 over US policies in Iraq, is that there is a widening gap between the government, military policies, and the soldiers that carry them out.
“Military personnel know America will always have a military, but there is growing concern over the way it is being used,” says the 29-year veteran, adding that an increasing list of concerns include “the use of torture, illegal detentions, and both soldiers and the public being lied to about the actual reasons for going into combat.”
Nicholas Kristof writes: He was a 27-year-old former Marine, struggling to adjust to civilian life after two tours in Iraq. Once an A student, he now found himself unable to remember conversations, dates and routine bits of daily life. He became irritable, snapped at his children and withdrew from his family. He and his wife began divorce proceedings.
This young man took to alcohol, and a drunken car crash cost him his driver’s license. The Department of Veterans Affairs diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, or P.T.S.D. When his parents hadn’t heard from him in two days, they asked the police to check on him. The officers found his body; he had hanged himself with a belt.
That story is devastatingly common, but the autopsy of this young man’s brain may have been historic. It revealed something startling that may shed light on the epidemic of suicides and other troubles experienced by veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His brain had been physically changed by a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. That’s a degenerative condition best-known for affecting boxers, football players and other athletes who endure repeated blows to the head.
In people with C.T.E., an abnormal form of a protein accumulates and eventually destroys cells throughout the brain, including the frontal and temporal lobes. Those are areas that regulate impulse control, judgment, multitasking, memory and emotions.
That Marine was the first Iraq veteran found to have C.T.E., but experts have since autopsied a dozen or more other veterans’ brains and have repeatedly found C.T.E. The findings raise a critical question: Could blasts from bombs or grenades have a catastrophic impact similar to those of repeated concussions in sports, and could the rash of suicides among young veterans be a result? [Continue reading...]
Imagine soldiers who couldn’t be traumatized; who could engage in the worst imaginable brutality and not only remember nothing, but remember something else, completely benign. That might just sound like dystopian science fiction, but ongoing research is laying the foundations to turn this into reality.
The first speculative steps are now being taken in an attempt to develop techniques of what is being called “therapeutic forgetting.” Military veterans suffering from PTSD are currently serving as subjects in research projects on using propranolol to mitigate the effects of wartime trauma. Some veterans’ advocates criticize the project because they see it as a “metaphor” for how the “administration, Defense Department, and Veterans Affairs officials, not to mention many Americans, are approaching the problem of war trauma during the Iraq experience.”
The argument is that terrible combat experiences are “part of a soldier’s life” and are “embedded in our national psyche, too,” and that these treatments reflect an illegitimate wish to forget the pain suffered by war veterans. Tara McKelvey, who researched veterans’ attitudes to the research project, quoted one veteran as disapproving of the project on the grounds that “problems have to be dealt with.” This comment came from a veteran who spends time “helping other veterans deal with their ghosts, and he gives talks to high school and college students about war.” McKelvey’s informant felt that the definition of who he was “comes from remembering the pain and dealing with it — not from trying to forget it.” The assumption here is that treating the pain of war pharmacologically is equivalent to minimizing, discounting, disrespecting and ultimately setting aside altogether the sacrifices made by veterans, and by society itself. People who objected to the possibility of altering emotional memories with drugs were concerned that this amounted to avoiding one’s true problems instead of “dealing” with them. An artificial record of the individual past would by the same token contribute to a skewed collective memory of the costs of war.
In addition to the work with veterans, there have been pilot studies with civilians in emergency rooms. In 2002, psychiatrist Roger Pitman of Harvard took a group of 31 volunteers from the emergency rooms at Massachusetts General Hospital, all people who had suffered some traumatic event, and for 10 days treated some with a placebo and the rest with propranolol [a beta blocker]. Those who received propranolol later had no stressful physical response to reminders of the original trauma, while almost half of the others did. Should those E.R. patients have been worried about the possible legal implications of taking the drug? Could one claim to be as good a witness once one’s memory had been altered by propranolol? And in a civil suit, could the defense argue that less harm had been done, since the plaintiff had avoided much of the emotional damage that an undrugged victim would have suffered? Attorneys did indeed ask about the implications for witness testimony, damages, and more generally, a devaluation of harm to victims of crime. One legal scholar framed this as a choice between protecting memory “authenticity” (a category he used with some skepticism) and “freedom of memory.” Protecting “authenticity” could not be done without sacrificing our freedom to control our own minds, including our acts of recall.
The anxiety provoked by the idea of “memory dampening” is so intriguing that even the President’s Council on Bioethics, convened by President George W. Bush in his first term, thought the issue important enough to reflect on it alongside discussions of cloning and stem-cell research. Editing memories could “disconnect people from reality or their true selves,” the council warned. While it did not give a definition of “selfhood,” it did give examples of how such techniques could warp us by “falsifying our perception and understanding of the world.” The potential technique “risks making shameful acts seem less shameful, or terrible acts less terrible, than they really are.”
Meanwhile, David DiSalvo notes ten brain science studies from 2011 including this:
Brain Implant Enables Memories to be Recorded and Played Back
Neural prosthetics had a big year in 2011, and no development in this area was bigger than an implant designed to record and replay memories.
Researchers had a group of rats with the implant perform a simply memory task: get a drink of water by hitting one lever in a cage, then—after a distraction—hitting another. They had to remember which lever they’d already pushed to know which one to push the second time. As the rats did this memory task, electrodes in the implants recorded signals between two areas of their brains involved in storing new information in long-term memory.
The researchers then gave the rats a drug that kept those brain areas from communicating. The rats still knew they had to press one lever then the other to get water, but couldn’t remember which lever they’d already pressed. When researchers played back the neural signals they’d recorded earlier via the implants, the rats again remembered which lever they had hit, and pressed the other one. When researchers played back the signals in rats not on the drug (thus amplifying their normal memory) the rats made fewer mistakes and remembered which lever they’d pressed even longer.
The bottom line: This is ground-level research demonstrating that neural signals involved in memory can be recorded and replayed. Progress from rats to humans will take many years, but even knowing that it’s plausible is remarkable.
A New York Times review of The Partnership: Five Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb: On the day after a nuclear bomb annihilates Washington, New Delhi, Islamabad, Seoul, Tel Aviv or Moscow, vaporizing and burning to death hundreds of thousands of people, our present complacency about nuclear proliferation will look like daylight madness. Even the chilliest of realists have shuddered at our capability for radioactive massacre. In 1977, the strategist George F. Kennan declared, “No one is good enough, wise enough, steady enough, to have control over the volume of explosives that now rest in the hands of this country.” Nuclear arms, he concluded, “shouldn’t exist at all.”
Philip Taubman’s fascinating, haunting book, “The Partnership,” is about the drive to abolish nuclear weapons — and, implicitly, about why it will probably fail. Taubman, a former reporter and editor for The New York Times, tells the stories of five American national security mandarins who, in the twilight of their illustrious careers, stunned their peers by campaigning to scrap all nuclear arms. They are not exactly pacifist hippies: Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz, Republican secretaries of state; William J. Perry, a Democratic secretary of defense; Sam Nunn, a Democrat who had been chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee; and Sidney D. Drell, an influential Stanford physicist. Their continuing activism, Taubman writes, “has induced sitting presidents and foreign ministers to embrace ideas not long ago ridiculed as radical and reckless,” and has “powerfully influenced Obama,” who advocates a world without nuclear weapons.
These five men had done much to foster a nuclearized world, and had prospered for their contributions to its infernal machinery. Much of “The Partnership” consists of eerie tales of the atomic cold war, charting the upward progress of these grandees. When they broke ranks, Taubman writes, “it was roughly equivalent to John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and Jay Gould calling for the demise of capitalism.”
The core of the book is Shultz, the group’s “undeclared leader” and its “most committed” member. Taubman affectionately writes that he “radiated probity, pragmatism and Republicanism.” “I had never learned to love the bomb,” Shultz says. At the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, as President Reagan’s secretary of state, he had a heartbreaking brush with nuclear abolition. (Taubman was there as a reporter.) The American and Soviet chiefs came close to a historic deal to eliminate all their nuclear weapons. But the agreement foundered over Reagan’s “quixotic quest to build a missile shield,” which Mikhail Gorbachev rejected. Shultz, skeptical about the missile defense project, was disappointed.
The death count is accurate. But the wounded figure wildly understates the number of American servicemembers who have come back from Iraq less than whole.
The true number of military personnel injured over the course of our nine-year-long fiasco in Iraq is in the hundreds of thousands — maybe even more than half a million — if you take into account all the men and women who returned from their deployments with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, depression, hearing loss, breathing disorders, diseases, and other long-term health problems.
We don’t have anything close to an exact number, however, because nobody’s been keeping track.
The much-cited Defense Department figure comes from its tally of “wounded in action” [PDF] — a narrowly-tailored category that only includes casualties during combat operations who have “incurred an injury due to an external agent or cause.” That generally means they needed immediate medical treatment after having been shot or blown up. Explicitly excluded from that category are “injuries or death due to the elements, self-inflicted wounds, combat fatigue” — along with cumulative psychological and physiological strain or many of the other wounds, maladies and losses that are most common among Iraq veterans.
The “wounded in action” category is relatively consistent, historically, so it’s still useful as a point of comparison to previous wars. But there is no central repository of data regarding these other, sometimes grievous, harms. We just have a few data points here and there that indicate the magnitude. [Continue reading...]
Two presidents and three secretaries of defense routinely have asked JSOC to mount intelligence-gathering missions and lethal raids, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in countries with which the United States was not at war, including Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Nigeria and Syria.
“The CIA doesn’t have the size or the authority to do some of the things we can do,” said one JSOC operator.
The president has also given JSOC the rare authority to select individuals for its kill list — and then to kill, rather than capture, them. Critics charge that this individual man-hunting mission amounts to assassination, a practice prohibited by U.S. law. JSOC’s list is not usually coordinated with the CIA, which maintains a similar, but shorter roster of names.
Created in 1980 but reinvented in recent years, JSOC has grown from 1,800 troops prior to 9/11 to as many as 25,000, a number that fluctuates according to its mission. It has its own intelligence division, its own drones and reconnaissance planes, even its own dedicated satellites. It also has its own cyberwarriors, who, on Sept. 11, 2008, shut down every jihadist Web site they knew.
Obscurity has been one of the unit’s hallmarks. When JSOC officers are working in civilian government agencies or U.S. embassies abroad, which they do often, they dispense with uniforms, unlike their other military comrades. In combat, they wear no name or rank identifiers. They have hidden behind various nicknames: the Secret Army of Northern Virginia, Task Force Green, Task Force 11, Task Force 121. JSOC leaders almost never speak in public. They have no unclassified Web site.
Despite the secrecy, JSOC is not permitted to carry out covert action like the CIA. Covert action, in which the U.S. role is to be kept hidden, requires a presidential finding and congressional notification. Many national security officials, however, say JSOC’s operations are so similar to the CIA’s that they amount to covert action. The unit takes its orders directly from the president or the secretary of defense and is managed and overseen by a military-only chain of command.
Stars and Stripes reports:
“I’m Robert Anthony Quinones, but my friends call me Q,” the former Army sergeant told the ER medic as he pointed a 9 mm handgun at the medic’s head.
“Can I call you Q?” asked the nervous medic, Sgt. Hubert Henson.
“OK,” Henson replied. “Well, Q, if you put the gun away, I can take you upstairs to behavioral health to get help.”
Quinones scoffed, instead ordering Henson to carry his three bags: a shaving kit, a duffel stuffed with clothes and books, and a backpack bulging with two assault rifles, a .38-caliber handgun, knives and ammunition.
Fifteen months of carnage in Iraq had left the 29-year-old debilitated by post-traumatic stress disorder. But despite his doctor’s urgent recommendation, the Army failed to send him to a Warrior Transition Unit for help. The best the Department of Veterans Affairs could offer was 10-minute therapy sessions — via videoconference.
So, early on Labor Day morning last year, after topping off a night of drinking with a handful of sleeping pills, Quinones barged into Fort Stewart’s hospital, forced his way to the third-floor psychiatric ward and held three soldiers hostage, demanding better mental health treatment.
“I’ve done it the Army’s way,” Quinones told Henson. “We’re going to do it my way now.”
The standoff ended after two hours without any injuries, but Quinones’ problems were only beginning.
While in custody, Quinones threatened the lives of President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, making his already bleak situation worse. Now he’s sitting in a jail cell awaiting his fate on a litany of federal charges while a court sorts out whether he should be prosecuted or committed.
Quinones’ story is one of an ordinary soldier who went off to war, came home broken, and then went over the edge after the government didn’t do enough to fix him. Even the three soldiers held at the point of Quinones’ guns today express more empathy than animosity for their captor.
To them, what Quinones did that day was the ultimate cry for help.
Josh Ruebner writes:
Apologists for Israeli occupation and apartheid claim that advocates for holding Israel accountable for its human rights abuses of Palestinians are “singling Israel out for extra scrutiny” or “holding Israel to a higher standard than other countries.”
Yet, ironically, Israel’s supporters also claim that U.S. military aid to Israel is sacrosanct and, unlike every other governmental program on the chopping block these days, cannot be questioned due to the “special U.S.-Israeli relationship.” Dan Carle, a spokesperson for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), has noted correctly that you cannot have your cake and eat it too.
In response to an article in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz suggesting that the Vermont Senator will attempt to apply sanctions to certain units of the Israeli military for human rights violations, Carle explained that “the [Leahy] law applies to U.S. aid to foreign security forces around the globe and is intended to be applied consistently across the spectrum of U.S. military aid abroad. Under the law the State Department is responsible for evaluations and enforcement decisions and over the years Senator Leahy has pressed for faithful and consistent application of the law.”
The possibility of Senator Leahy consistently applying this eponymous legislation and holding Israel to the exact same standard as every other country has Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose office may have leaked the story in an effort to kill the initiative, in a tizzy.
The “Leahy Law,” as it is commonly known, prohibits the United States from providing any weapons or training to “any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights.” In the past, this law has been invoked to curtail military aid to countries as diverse as Indonesia, Colombia, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Along with other provisions in the Foreign Assistance Act, of which it is a part, and the Arms Export Control Act, it forms the basis of an across-the-board policy that is supposed to ensure that U.S. assistance does not contribute to human rights abuses.
Ha’aretz reports that the Senator is looking to invoke this prohibition regarding “Israel Navy’s Shayetet 13 unit, the undercover Duvdevan unit and the Israel Air Force’s Shaldag unit.” The inclusion of specific units in the story may indicate that Leahy already has findings from the Secretary of State that these Israeli military units have committed human rights abuses.
If so, then this could be a much-overdue watershed in holding accountable Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. military aid, for its gross misuse of U.S. weapons to commit systematic human rights abuses of Palestinians living under Israel’s illegal 44-year military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza Strip.