The fall of Falluja reveals the tragic futility of America’s strategy in the Middle East

Graham E. Fuller writes: When is a war “worth it?” It’s a timeless question that still begs a decisive response.

The debacle of Iraq has now drifted off the scope Americans’ attention — US troops are no longer dying there and new challenges beckon Washington elsewhere. Been there, done that. The American part of the war may be over, and we have grown weary hearing about it, but the Iraqi part of the war still continues. And with the recent and symbolic fall, again, of Falluja to al-Qa’ida and other jihadis we are forcefully reminded of the price that we paid in the American cleansing of Falluja ten years ago — for naught. Falluja, massively damaged, seems back to square one.

What about the Iraqis — was the war worth it for them? The figures are pretty well known by now — upwards of half a million Iraqis died, either in the violence of war or subsequent civil strife. That’s roughly equivalent to 5 million US citizens dying in a war. Add at least one million Iraqis displaced from their homes and villages, many now in exile — equivalent to ten million Americans displaced. Saddam was one of the most brutal dictators the world has seen in modern times, but one wonders–Iraqis must wonder — whether anything Saddam could have done could ever have remotely approached such human and structural devastation as the war. And the psychological damage — constant fear, death, mayhem, ongoing massive insecurity, anarchy and civil conflict –is not yet over.

Still, if you talk to some Iraqi Shi’a, the shift of power from the hands of a Sunni minority under a brutal dictator into the hands of the Shi’ite majority was a long term political godsend for them; they are today “better off” — at least politically, than before the war. But that’s a political abstraction.

Was it “worth it” to individual Shi’ite families who suffered loss of husbands, brothers, wives and children, homes and livelihoods? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, when asked about the deaths of half a million Iraqi children deprived of medicine under the US sanctions on Saddam, said it was “a hard choice… but it was worth it.” That is the comforting Olympian strategic view, uncomplicated by ground realities for real human beings.

What strategic gains can we tote up for the US alongside Iraqi losses? For the US, virtually nothing gained; indeed, it’s been a serious net loss in geopolitical terms. Few Iraqis are grateful. An Iraq that has always displayed strong Arab nationalist tendencies will not likely now change its colors or learn to love Israel.

Iran is now recognized as the real winner of the Iraq war. The Iraqi internal struggle has spread across into Syria, presenting the US with choices nearly all of which are highly unpalatable. Saudi Arabia has now felt the need to unleash a vicious sectarian conflict that destabilizes the Gulf, the Arabian Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, even Pakistan. [Continue reading...]

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The Sunni-Shiite divide in the Greater Levant

Giandomenico Picco writes: The entire region from Pakistan to Lebanon — what I refer to as the Greater Levant — has been affected by profound, seismic changes during the course of the last three decades. These began in the late 1970s, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran triangle.

Pakistan received the political support of Saudi Arabia, both in its tense standoff with nuclear India and in its increasingly intense relationship with the Soviet Union, which had invaded neighboring Afghanistan in December 1979. The Khomeini revolution (February 1979) in Shiite Iran convinced the Sunni “world” of an epochal change in the making. This little-noticed affair was at the very root of a more open confrontation along sectarian lines. In the mess of the first Afghan War of the 1980s, which I witnessed up close and personal, the underlying Sunni and Shiite conflict was barely noticed by the rest of the world, though it was better perceived in the war between Iran and Iraq in the same decade.

In the 1990s, however, events in Afghanistan revealed the true face of the underlying confrontation between Sunni and Shiite throughout the region. By the mid 1990s, the Taliban, with Pakistani support, began to make their run for total victory in Kabul. Soon the Sunni Afghan tribes (i.e., the Pasthun) and the Shiite Afghan tribes (i.e. the Tajiks and Hazaras), were engaged in open sectarian civil war. The Shiite tribes were supported by Russia and Iran, while the Taliban received support from Pakistan, somewhat from Saudi Arabia and, for a while, from the West, though in a very undecided way.

The tragic events of September 11, which had been masterminded by Sunni men who had trained in Afghanistan, resulted in a new understanding between Iran and the United States. The interests of both countries had coalesced. The 2001 Bonn Agreements between Washington and Tehran revealed that both nations had a common enemy in the Sunni extremists. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun Sunni, became president of Afghanistan and the opposing Tajiiks came back to Kabul and entered into a coalition of sorts with Karzai. While this did not end the sectarian conflict, which continued during and after the U.S. military intervention, post-2001 Afghanistan is an example of a country rife with sectarian conflict, yet one in which compromise of a sort can be sought and even found.

But then came Iraq. Iran welcomed the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein in 2003, seeing it as payback for 1534, an important, sad date in the Shiite narrative. In that year, Suleiman the First (the Ottoman Sultan) conquered Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) and “the land of the two rivers” came under the control of the Sunni minority. Iran felt that the West had inadvertently given them a chance to reclaim Baghdad for the Shiites. Again, the ancient Sunni-Shiite conflict structured events but was little noticed by the West.

Despite vigorous efforts, there has been little progress on the Israeli-Palestinian question. Indeed, there has been no progress at all since Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated by one of his own fellow citizens in mid 1995. The longest running conflict in the modern Middle East now seems to have little effect on the day-to-day events of the region. Indeed I would submit that the conflict is no longer pivotal in the region.

There are several reasons for this shift in the prominence and perception of the issue: for one thing, the Cold War came to an end and power struggles in the region were no longer proxy conflicts between the superpowers. Globalization, moreover, has weakened national and nationalistic boundaries and created unprecedented economic interdependence. Technology has made the individual more powerful than he or she has ever been before and the very concept of the nation-state is changing. The simple, two-dimensional worldview of decades past has yielded to recognition of a multiplicity of variables in the Greater Levant. Still, the principal, underlying and organizational dynamic of the entire region is no longer the Palestinian-Israeli conflict but the Sunni-Shiite conflict and its cold and hot wars in every country from the Hindu Kush to the Litani River.

The lead actors in this ongoing drama remain Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia. If a new architecture for the entire region is going to be found, then these two countries must take on the responsibility. Yet the chess game between Riyadh and Tehran continues: in Iraq, the Shiites have won a victory of sorts in the West’s defeat of Saddam. Yet Saddam’s Sunni backers in the region do not accept this as the last word. This remains the core line of demarcation for both sides. [Continue reading...]

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Devastating dossier on ‘abuse’ by UK forces in Iraq goes to International Criminal Court

The Independent reports: A devastating 250-page dossier, detailing allegations of beatings, electrocution, mock executions and sexual assault, has been presented to the International Criminal Court, and could result in some of Britain’s leading defence figures facing prosecution for “systematic” war crimes.

General Sir Peter Wall, the head of the British Army; former defence secretary Geoff Hoon; and former defence minister Adam Ingram are among those named in the report, entitled “The Responsibility of UK Officials for War Crimes Involving Systematic Detainee Abuse in Iraq from 2003-2008″.

The damning dossier draws on cases of more than 400 Iraqis, representing “thousands of allegations of mistreatment amounting to war crimes of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

They range from “hooding” prisoners to burning, electric shocks, threats to kill and “cultural and religious humiliation”. Other forms of alleged abuse include sexual assault, mock executions, threats of rape, death, and torture.

The formal complaint to the ICC, lodged yesterday, is the cumulation of several years’ work by Public Interest Lawyers (PIL) and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR). It calls for an investigation into the alleged war crimes, under Article 15 of the Rome Statute.

The dossier, seen by The Independent on Sunday, is the most detailed ever submitted to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor on war crimes allegedly committed by British forces in Iraq. The court has already acknowledged that there was little doubt that war crimes were committed. [Continue reading...]

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The cost of misusing American might

Andrew J. Bacevich writes: The U.S. military is like the highly skilled, gadget-toting contractor who promises to give your kitchen a nifty makeover in no time whatsoever. Here’s the guy you can count on to get the job done. Just look at those references! Yet by the time he drives off months later, the kitchen’s a shambles and you’re stuck with a bill several times larger than the initial estimate. Turns out the job was more complicated than it seemed. But what say we take a crack at remodeling the master bath?

That pretty much summarizes the American experience with war since the end of the Cold War. By common consent, when it comes to skills and gadgets, U.S. forces are in a league of their own. Yet when it comes to finishing the job on schedule and on budget, their performance has been woeful.

Indeed, these days the United States absolves itself of any responsibility to finish wars that it starts. When we’ve had enough, we simply leave, pretending that when U.S. forces exit the scene, the conflict is officially over. In 2011, when the last American troops crossed from Iraq into Kuwait, President Obama proudly declared that he had made good on his campaign promise to end the Iraq war. Sometime late this year, when the U.S. terminates its combat role in Afghanistan, he will waste no time consigning that war to the past as well. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. veterans despondent over al-Qaeda’s resurgence in Iraq

The Washington Post reports: The towering former three-star general keeps a wooden box on his desk with the photos of 257 service members who died in Iraq under his command, sorted by date. During quiet moments, usually a couple of times a week, Mark Hertling opens the lid, inscribed with the words “Make it Matter,” flips through the laminated portraits of uniformed troops and reflects on their loss.

“I try to keep track of anniversaries of the deaths and say a prayer for them and their families,” said Hertling, who now works at a hospital in Orlando. “During the holiday season, you think about the young men and women killed in 2003, 2004 and figure they would have been in their 30s now, with a couple of kids.”

The ritual was never easy. It has become increasingly painful over the past two years, as Hertling and a generation of troops and civilians indelibly shaped by harrowing tours in Iraq have watched the country unravel from afar.

The Iraq war may have never been declared lost. But the stunning surge in violence over the past year — and the return of al-Qaeda in the western province of Anbar this month — is forcing Americans who invested personally in the war’s success to grapple with haunting questions.

“Could someone smart convince me that the black flag of al-Qaeda flying over Fallujah isn’t analogous to the fall of Saigon?” former Army captain Matt Gallagher asked on Twitter. “Because. Well.” [Continue reading...]

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Qaeda-aligned militants threaten key Iraqi cities

The New York Times reports: Radical Sunni militants aligned with Al Qaeda threatened Thursday to seize control of Falluja and Ramadi, two of the most important cities in Iraq, setting fire to police stations, freeing prisoners from jail and occupying mosques, as the government rushed troop reinforcements to the areas.

Dressed in black and waving the flag of Al Qaeda, the militants commandeered mosque loudspeakers to call for supporters to join their struggle in both cities in the western province of Anbar, which have increasingly become centers of Sunni extremism since American forces withdrew from the country at the end of 2011.

For the United States, which asserted at the time that Iraq was on track to become a stable democracy, Anbar holds grave historical significance — as a place for America’s greatest losses, and perhaps its most significant success, of the eight-year war.

Nearly one-third of the American soldiers killed in the war died trying to pacify Anbar, and Americans fought two battles for control of Falluja, in some of the bloodiest combat that American troops had faced since Vietnam. [Continue reading...]

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Ann Jones: Suffer the children

Another week, another revelation about spying by the National Security Agency.  This time, it was the NSA’s infiltration of online video games and virtual realms like World of Warcraft and Second Life.  And it was hardly a shock.  More than a decade ago, TomDispatch began reporting on the U.S. military’s collaborations with the video game industry, including a virtual world known as There.  As the years went by, the military became ever more enmeshed in the digital world.  In 2008, while covering the 26th Army Science Conference, I spoke to the chief of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command about a new recruiting initiative he was setting up in the fantasy realm of Second Life.  General William Wallace was over the moon about the possibility of engaging with the “four million young people” who had signed onto that virtual online environment.

While the Army was making an overt play for new recruits in the digital universe, the NSA was secretly targeting virtual worlds for clandestine activities.  A top-secret 2008 NSA document, leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to the Guardian and shared with the New York Times and ProPublica, cast online games as a “target-rich communication network.”  They were imagined (with little evidence) to be potential terrorist havens and so, as one document gushed, “an opportunity!”

In the time since I spoke to General Wallace, virtual worlds have bloomed.  The number of Second Life accounts, for example, has grown to 36 million registered users, according to its creator, Linden Labs.  And it seems, as the Times and ProPublica reported, that a surprising number of those new visitors were from the U.S. Intelligence Community.  Second Life, in fact, became so thick with spies from the Pentagon, the CIA, and the FBI that it was necessary to create what one of the leaked documents called a “deconfliction” group to keep them from duplicating their efforts, spying on one another, and so turning their online push into a digital snarl.

And yet, after all that virtual snooping, there is no evidence that the untold millions of dollars spent infiltrating digital spies into worlds of pixies, scantily-clad lion-women, and pony skeleton avatars (no, I’m not making these up) has uncovered any terrorists or foiled any al-Qaeda plots.  It has, however, allowed the U.S. government to penetrate the lives of the young (and increasingly, the not-so-young) in new and intrusive ways. 

Today, Ann Jones, author of the acclaimed new Dispatch Book, They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story, examines another way the U.S. military targets America’s youth — via a completely non-virtual, off-line, old school social network: the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps.  It’s a startling look at the sort of everyday military indoctrination that may be happening, possibly in your very neighborhood, and almost as quietly as government agents slip in and out of their favorite digital fantasy worlds.

After recently shining much needed light on what happens to America’s veterans once they return from this country’s war zones, Jones turns her perceptive gaze on one way the military gets hold of young men and women in the first place.  If you thought only countries like Yemen, South Sudan, and Chad had child soldiers, think again. Nick Turse

America’s child soldiers
JROTC and the militarizing of America
By Ann Jones

Congress surely meant to do the right thing when, in the fall of 2008, it passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). The law was designed to protect kids worldwide from being forced to fight the wars of Big Men. From then on, any country that coerced children into becoming soldiers was supposed to lose all U.S. military aid.

It turned out, however, that Congress — in its rare moment of concern for the next generation — had it all wrong. In its greater wisdom, the White House found countries like Chad and Yemen so vital to the national interest of the United States that it preferred to overlook what happened to the children in their midst.

As required by CSPA, this year the State Department once again listed 10 countries that use child soldiers: Burma (Myanmar), the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.  Seven of them were scheduled to receive millions of dollars in U.S. military aid as well as what’s called “U.S. Foreign Military Financing.”  That’s a shell game aimed at supporting the Pentagon and American weapons makers by handing millions of taxpayer dollars over to such dodgy “allies,” who must then turn around and buy “services” from the Pentagon or “materiel” from the usual merchants of death. You know the crowd: Lockheed Martin, McDonnell Douglas, Northrop Grumman, and so on.

Here was a chance for Washington to teach a set of countries to cherish their young people, not lead them to the slaughter. But in October, as it has done every year since CSPA became law, the White House again granted whole or partial “waivers” to five countries on the State Department’s “do not aid” list: Chad, South Sudan, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Somalia.

Too bad for the young — and the future — of those countries.  But look at it this way: Why should Washington help the children of Sudan or Yemen escape war when it spares no expense right here at home to press our own impressionable, idealistic, ambitious American kids into military “service”?

[Read more...]

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Rumsfeld’s war and its consequences now

Mark Danner writes: A bare two weeks after the attacks of September 11, at the end of a long and emotional day at the White House, a sixty-nine-year-old politician and businessman—a midwesterner, born of modest means but grown wealthy and prominent and powerful—returned to his enormous suite of offices on the seventh floor of the flood-lit and wounded Pentagon and, as was his habit, scrawled out a memorandum on his calendar:

Interesting day—
NSC mtg. with President—
As [it] ended he asked to see me alone…
After the meeting ended I went to Oval Office—He was alone
He was at his desk—
He talked about the meet
Then he said I want you to develop a plan to invade Ir[aq]. Do it outside the normal channels. Do it creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover [?]

Then he said Dick [Cheney] told me about your son—I broke down and cried. I couldn’t speak—
said I love him so much
He said I can’t imagine the burden you are carrying for the country and your son—
He said much more.
Stood and hugged me
An amazing day—
He is a fine human being—
I am so grateful he is President.
I am proud to be working for him.

It is a touching and fateful scene, this trading of confidences between the recovering alcoholic president and the defense secretary whose son is struggling with drug addiction, and shows the intimacy that can be forged amid danger and turmoil and stress. Trust brings trust, confidence builds on confidence: the young inexperienced president, days before American bombs begin falling on Afghanistan, wants a “creative” plan to invade Iraq, developed “outside the normal channels”; the old veteran defense secretary, in a rare moment of weakness, craves human comfort and understanding.

And yet they’d hardly known one another, these two, before George W. Bush chose him for his secretary of defense nine months before. To George W., Donald Henry Rumsfeld had been little more than a political enemy of the Bush family. It was Rumsfeld, as President Gerald Ford’s ambitious young chief of staff, who had been instrumental in the so-called “Halloween Massacre” in 1975 that—so the legend goes—had helped clear the way for his own presidential ambitions by shunting George H.W. Bush, the wealthy eastern born-with-a-silver-spoon-in-his-mouth preppie who was the scrappy Illinois-born wrestler’s main rival, off to be CIA director. This was a job for which Bush could gain Senate confirmation only by agreeing not to accept the vice-presidential nomination in 1976—even as Rumsfeld, as he tells us in his memoir, “for the third time in three years,…found myself being discussed for the vice presidential nomination.” As Bush family consigliere James A. Baker III cautioned George W. a quarter-century later, when Rumsfeld’s name was bruited for secretary of defense, “You know what he did to your daddy.”

Certainly he knew, and one can be forgiven for suspecting that this knowledge might have been a strong part of the attraction, perhaps for both men. When Errol Morris asks Rumsfeld whether his former aide Dick Cheney had brought him into the Bush administration, Rumsfeld replies, “I assume that’s the case. I don’t think George W. Bush’s father recommended it,” and then beams with self-congratulatory mischievousness. [Continue reading...]

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Ann Jones: War wounds

In 2010, I arrived at Harvard University with a mess of a manuscript — 10 years’ worth of research on American war crimes in Vietnam patchworked together in such a way that it was comprehensible to only one person on the planet: me.  But I was lucky.  I had a year to do something about it, and by something, I mean write the book again. From scratch. It was a daunting task, but the alternative was to declare the project a lost cause — and I wasn’t ready to do that.

At the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, I was given an office, financial support, access to one of the world’s great libraries, and everything else that comes with a fellowship at an elite institution like Harvard.  I couldn’t have asked for more, but as it happened, I needed more. I needed help, direction, advice. I needed a sounding board. I needed the counsel of someone with an intimate knowledge of war, of violence, of atrocity.  Presumably, there was someone at Harvard with such credentials.  But where among the brick and ivy, could I find such a person?

It turned out that she was indeed at Harvard — and conveniently located in an office about three feet distant from mine. Radcliffe, in its infinite wisdom, had made Ann Jones my neighbor for the year and her guidance helped transform that mess of a manuscript into my book Kill Anything That MovesThe Real American War in Vietnam.

Day after day, I would flop into a chair in her office and we would talk through various quandaries I faced: how to write up a particular incident, where to locate a key chapter, how to convey the horror I’d uncovered without traumatizing the reader.  In the midst of this, she began to share snippets of her latest interviews with damaged war veterans, their family members, and the American military personnel tasked with mitigating their physical injuries and psychological issues. In the midst of our mutual fellowship stays, Ann borrowed some body armor and jetted off to Afghanistan to bear witness to the wounded and the work of the men and women who attempted to save them. From there, she flew to Germany with the grievously injured and finally back to the U.S. where she began to keep tabs on their recovery and what has become of them.

As I listened to Ann, as I watched her office fill up with articles on combat, killing, and post-traumatic stress, as I saw her bookshelves strain under the weight of innumerable volumes on war, military training, and veterans’ issues, as I began to grasp just where her interviews and research were taking her, as we talked about all of this in detail, I became ever more certain that hers would be a special, even unprecedented volume, an “untold story” in the recent annals of American war. I knew that, as she was helping me, she was also writing a book which anyone interested in understanding the cost of war for soldiers and veterans, as well as their families and those who treat them, would need to read. I knew that her book would change the way we understand America’s recent wars.

I had no idea, at the time, however, that I would eventually have the opportunity to play a role in bringing They Were SoldiersHow the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — The Untold Story into being.  It’s a beautifully written, devastatingly poignant piece of reportage, and an instant classic on the hidden reverberations of our distant wars — from triage that goes on unseen behind hospital doors to the long, private struggles that occur anonymously in suburban neighborhoods and rehabilitation centers across the U.S.  As with so many works that are ahead of their time, They Were Soldiers had difficulty finding a home.  I was delighted then that Tom Engelhardt and I had a fledgling imprint, with Haymarket Books behind us, that last week made Ann’s book a reality. 

My role in They Were Soldiers has been modest.  Ann did the heavy lifting and it was, indeed, heavy.  At 73, she strapped on body armor and headed to war so you didn’t have to.  She watched the sort of “meatball surgery” that would have left you doubled over and retching.  She asked the hard questions of soldiers, veterans, and their family members that you never could.  And she wrote it all up with passion, eloquence, and unsparing clarity.

I spent the last 10 years interviewing veterans and intensely studying war and I still find They Were Soldiers to be revelatory.  Just as our conversations did at Harvard, now her book has altered my outlook on American war and its aftermath.  Today, she’s offering to do the same for you.  If you haven’t already done so, I urge you to pick up a copy of They Were Soldiers.  It’s the next best thing to having Ann as your neighbor. Nick Turse

A trail of tears
How veterans return from America’s wars
By Ann Jones

[The text of this piece is an excerpt, slightly adapted, from Ann Jones's new book They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars -- The Untold Story, just published by Dispatch Books/Haymarket Books]

In 2010, I began to follow U.S. soldiers down a long trail of waste and sorrow that led from the battle spaces of Afghanistan to the emergency room of the trauma hospital at Bagram Air Base, where their catastrophic wounds were surgically treated and their condition stabilized.  Then I accompanied some of them by cargo plane to Ramstein Air Base in Germany for more surgeries at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, or LRMC (pronounced Larm-See), the largest American hospital outside the United States.

Once stabilized again, those critical patients who survived would be taken by ambulance a short distance back to Ramstein, where a C-17 waited to fly them across the Atlantic to Dover Air Base in Delaware. There, tall, multilayered ambulances awaited the wounded for the last leg of their many-thousand-mile journey to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. or the Naval Hospital at Bethesda, Maryland, where, depending upon their injuries, they might remain for a year or two, or more.

Now, we are in Germany, halfway home.  This evening, the ambulance from LRMC heading for the flight line at Ramstein will be full of critical-care patients, so I leave the hospital early and board the plane to watch the medical teams bring them aboard.  They’ve done this drill many times a week since the start of the Afghan War.  They are practiced, efficient, and fast, and so we are soon in the air again. This time, with a full load.

[Read more...]

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Ann Jones: Silent soldiers, the losers from our lost wars

Back in the distant year 2003, my novel about a world I had inhabited for decades, The Last Days of Publishing, came out.  In its last pages, three superannuated book editors huddled in a coffee shop in Manhattan, dreaming about DIY publishing.  A decade later — for me — fiction has become reality.  Today, with the publication of Ann Jones’s magnificent They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story, and with a major helping hand from Haymarket Books, Nick Turse and I are indeed DIY publishers, embarking on a venture that is less a potential business model than an urge to change the world and have an adventure in the process.

From time to time over the years, he and I had slipped into a booth at my local diner and, like those fictional editors of mine, batted around vague plans for creating our own press.  Finally, in 2012, we gathered up our collected essays about drones and tried a do-it-yourself one-off at Amazon that we called Terminator Planet.  It was a book made by a machine or perhaps an algorithm without, as far as I could tell, human intervention, and like the president’s drones, it turned out to come with “collateral damage.”  (It was the ugliest-looking volume imaginable!)  Next, we turned to Anthony Arnove, my publisher at Haymarket Books, and produced a little collection of Nick’s recent work, The Changing Face of Empire, which proved to be a jewel of a book and a modest success.  Emboldened, we started looking for a manuscript with which we could really launch an imprint, one that caught some unforgettable aspect of our dark world and, above all, needed a press like ours to be born.

When, in 1976 at age 32, I first became an editor at a mainstream publishing house, I had just one urge: I wanted to bring new voices, as young as I was, into the world; I wanted, as I used to say at the time, to publish “voices from elsewhere,” even when that elsewhere was right here in the U.S.A.  (Back then, I also proudly and only half-jokingly used to brag of being publishing’s “editor of last resort,” a claim that would now undoubtedly get an editor fired.)  Generally speaking, I think I reached that goal both in the books I helped to birth and, in more recent years, at TomDispatch, which is, I hope, regularly a voice from “elsewhere,” even though firmly located here.  Nearly four decades after my publishing career began, however, I find it strangely appropriate that the first voice Nick and I bring you isn’t youthful at all, but that of the vibrant Ann Jones, who, when she dons her combat boots and body armor, may actually be the oldest war correspondent on the planet.

It turns out that it takes an old lady with guts, someone who has long known the suffering that the Afghan War brought down on Afghans, to follow the trail and the lives of young American soldiers horribly wounded in that war.  Hers, like theirs, has been a harrowing journey, reported in her remarkable new book with striking bluntness by a woman who is herself something of a veteran of the catastrophes of our world and who, in the wake of her Afghan experiences, has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder herself.  As it happens, she also writes like an angel, even as she brings us, up close and personal, the true costs to the young Americans she calls “kids” of our post-9/11 war-making.

You don’t have to believe me.  Consider what psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, author of the award-winning book Achilles in Vietnam, has to say about the way They Were Soldiers portrays the American wounded:

“This is a painful odyssey. Ann Jones’s superb writing makes it possible to take it in without sugar coating. Her scene painting takes you there with compassion and without flinching — no sentimental bullshit here, no lofty pity. We fly with her in the belly of a C-17 medical evacuation from Bagram [Air Base in Afghanistan], into operating rooms of the Landstuhl European way station, more surgeries at Walter Reed, into the gymnasium for the long, determined work with prosthetics, with the physical and occupational therapists. We go with her to the homes of the families receiving the brain-injured and the psychologically and morally injured. We hear firsthand accounts by families of service members who died of their war wounds in the mind and spirit, after making it back in one piece… physically. Her breadth of vision includes even contractors, whom most dismiss from their minds and forget. Read this book. You will be a wiser and better citizen.”

And when you’re done, you won’t for a second doubt the high price some Americans have paid for Washington’s folly.

It’s with great pride, then, that I announce the official publication today of this first original offering from Dispatch Books.  To introduce it at the site, TomDispatch regular Jones offers an overview of what might be called her American experience in Afghanistan.  Read it and then buy her book.  I guarantee you one thing: when you’re done with it, as with the best of books, you’ll see our world differently. Tom Engelhardt

They didn’t know what they were getting into
The cost of war American-style
By Ann Jones

The last time I saw American soldiers in Afghanistan, they were silent. Knocked out by gunfire and explosions that left them grievously injured, as well as drugs administered by medics in the field, they were carried from medevac helicopters into a base hospital to be plugged into machines that would measure how much life they had left to save. They were bloody.  They were missing pieces of themselves. They were quiet.

It’s that silence I remember from the time I spent in trauma hospitals among the wounded and the dying and the dead. It was almost as if they had fled their own bodies, abandoning that bloodied flesh upon the gurneys to surgeons ready to have a go at salvation. Later, sometimes much later, they might return to inhabit whatever the doctors had managed to salvage.  They might take up those bodies or what was left of them and make them walk again, or run, or even ski.  They might dress themselves, get a job, or conceive a child. But what I remember is the first days when they were swept up and dropped into the hospital so deathly still.

[Read more...]

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The military’s toxic burn pits are making soldiers sick

Katie Drummond writes: At the height of the war in Iraq, US forces operated out of 505 bases scattered across the country. Joint Base Balad, a 15-square-mile outpost north of Baghdad, was the second largest. Home to 36,000 military personnel and contractors at its peak, the base was considered a vital hub for operations throughout Iraq — largely thanks to two 11,000-foot runways and one of the best and biggest trauma centers in the region. Balad also boasted a notorious array of amenities: troops living in the makeshift mini-city could dine on Burger King or Subway, play miniature golf or relax in an air-conditioned movie theater, and browse for TVs or iPods at two different shopping centers.

But when Le Roy arrived at Balad in the summer of 2007, the first thing he noticed was the smell. A noxious, overwhelming stench reminiscent of burning rubber. “I was like, ‘Wow, that is something really bad, really really bad,’” he recalls. Soon, he also noticed the smoke: plumes of it curling into the air at all hours of the day, sometimes lingering over the base as dark, foreboding clouds. That smoke, Le Roy soon learned, was coming from the same place as the stench that had first grabbed him: Balad’s open-air burn pit.

The pit, a shallow excavation measuring a gargantuan 10 acres, was used to incinerate every single piece of refuse generated by Balad’s thousands of residents. That meant seemingly innocuous items, like food scraps or paper. But it also meant plastic, styrofoam, electronics, metal cans, rubber tires, ammunition, explosives, human feces, animal carcasses, lithium batteries, asbestos insulation, and human body parts — all of it doused in jet fuel and lit on fire. The pit wasn’t unique to Balad: open-air burn pits, operated either by servicemembers or contractors, were used to dispose of trash at bases all across Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I remember waking up with soot on me; you’d come out and barely see the sun because it was so dark from the smoke,” says Dan Meyer, a 28-year-old Air Force veteran who lived adjacent to the burn pit at Afghanistan’s Kandahar Air Base. Meyer is now confined to a wheelchair because of inoperable tumors in his knees, and breathes using an oxygen tank due to an obstructive lung disease. “It would just rain down on us. We always called it ‘black snow.’”

It’s no secret that open-air burning poses health hazards. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has long warned that burning waste — even organic refuse like brush or tree branches — is dangerous. Burning items like plastic water bottles or computer parts is even worse. “It’s appalling,” says Anthony Wexler, PhD, director of the Air Quality Research Center at UC Davis and the co-author of a 2010 review of the military’s air-quality surveillance programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. “From a health perspective, this kind of open-pit burning, especially when you’re burning everything under the sun, creates a real mess.” That’s because of both the size of the particulate matter emitted from the pits and its composition. Smoke from any combustion process fills the air with what are known as “fine particles” or PM2.5. Because they’re so small — measuring 2.5 microns in diameter or less — these particles burrow more deeply into the lungs than larger airborne pollutants, and from there can leach into the bloodstream and circulate through the body. The military’s burn pits emitted particulate matter laced with heavy metals and toxins — like sulfur dioxide, arsenic, dioxins, and hydrochloric acid — that are linked to serious health ailments. Among them are chronic respiratory and cardiovascular problems, allergies, neurological conditions, several kinds of cancer, and weakened immune systems. [Continue reading...]

For more information, see Burnpits 360.

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As Iraq seeks U.S. arms, bombs kill another 55

Reuters reports: A dozen bombings in Iraq killed 55 people on Sunday as the prime minister prepares to travel to Washington to seek President Barack Obama’s help in confronting a wave of sectarian violence fuelled by Syria’s civil war.

Killings, mostly blamed by the Shi’ite-led government on Sunni Islamists from al Qaeda, are running at daily rates not seen in five years and Nuri al-Maliki will ask Obama on Friday to speed up promised deliveries of drones and F-16 jets that he believes can help staunch the long desert border with Syria.

Iraq’s own security forces, trained and equipped by the U.S. troops who withdrew in late 2011 after a nine-year occupation, have been unable to prevent a surge in violence which has taken the civilian death toll so far this year to about 7,000. Sealing the Syrian border would only address part of the problem.

On Sunday, police reported 11 vehicles blowing up in mainly Shi’ite Muslim areas in and around Baghdad, killing 41 people in an apparently coordinated series of explosions typical of al Qaeda. A further 14 people were killed when a suicide bomber drove up to a line of soldiers waiting to collect their pay from a bank in the northern city of Mosul and detonated his car.

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How the U.S. poisoned Iraq

MSNBC reports: Between 2002 and 2005, U.S. forces shot off 6 billion bullets in Iraq (something like 300,000 for every person killed). They also dropped 2,000 to 4,000 tons of bombs on Iraqi cities, leaving behind a witch’s brew of contaminants and toxic metals, including the neurotoxins lead and mercury. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an Iranian-born toxicologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, is studying the health impact, and her early findings are worrying. Last year, in a study published with Iraqi colleagues, she reported staggering increases in birth defects in the heavily bombarded cities of Basrah and Fallujah. The increases started in the early 90s, after the bombings of the first Gulf War, and continued right through 2011.

In Basrah, the group’s analysis of hospital records revealed 16-fold increase in birth defects among babies delivered between 1994 and 2003 (from 1.4 to 23 per 1,000 live births), and another 48% rise between 2003 to 2009 (from 23 to 48). Likewise, a survey of 56 families in Fallujah showed a 50% increase in birth defects between 1991 and 2010, along with an eightfold increase in miscarriages. Neurological defects are now pervasive in both cities. And though the causes are still uncertain, Savabieasfahani has cited lead and mercury as likely culprits. In Basrah, she found that teeth from malformed children contained three times more lead than teeth from normal ones. In Fallujah, children with birth defects harbored five times more lead than normal kids from the same city, and six times more mercury.

“The explosion of bombs creates fine metal-containing dust particles that linger in the air and can be inhaled by the public,” Savabieasfahani wrote in an essay for Al Jazeera last week. “Metals are persistent in the environment and metal-containing fine dust may be re-injected into the air periodically as a result of wind and air turbulence. Iraq is well known for its strong and frequent sandstorms, which can easily render contaminated dust airborne. Since war debris and the wreckage from ammunition and bombs remain unabated in the environment, the weathering process facilitates continuous metal release into the environment.”

Are Basrah and Fallujah just sentinels of a wider crisis? In an initial effort to find out, the World Health Organization has helped Iraq’s health ministry sample birth-defect incidence across eight regions of the country. The survey is reportedly finished, but the findings are still under review in Baghdad. (Our calls to the health ministry weren’t returned.) Whatever the survey turns up, Savabiesfahani is deeply worried about the trends already documented in Basrah and Fallujah. “We can’t wish this away,” she says. “We need immediate efforts to identify and clean up the sources of hazardous waste. We can’t let this fester the way Agent Orange did in Vietnam.” [Continue reading...]

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Iraq study estimates war-related deaths at 461,000

BBC News reports: About half a million people died in Iraq as a result of war-related causes between the US-led invasion in 2003 and mid-2011, an academic study suggests.

University researchers from the US, Canada and Iraq based their estimate on randomised surveys of 2,000 households.

The toll includes not only violent deaths from the invasion and subsequent insurgency, but avoidable fatalities linked to infrastructure collapse.

It exceeds the 112,000 violent civilian deaths reported by Iraq Body Count.

The British-based organisation bases its tally on media reports, hospital and mortuary records, and information from official and non-governmental sources.

There has been a surge in sectarian violence in Iraq in the past year, with almost 5,000 civilians killed in attacks between January and September, according the UN. It says more than 3,000 people died in 2012.

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Bush administration feared chemical weapons inspections would conflict with rationale for invading Iraq

The New York Times reports: More than a decade before the international agency that monitors chemical weapons won the Nobel Peace Prize, John R. Bolton marched into the office of its boss to inform him that he would be fired.

“He told me I had 24 hours to resign,” said José Bustani, who was director general of the agency, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague. “And if I didn’t I would have to face the consequences.”

Mr. Bolton, then an under secretary of state and later the American ambassador to the United Nations, told Mr. Bustani that the Bush administration was unhappy with his management style.

But Mr. Bustani, 68, who had been re-elected unanimously just 11 months earlier, refused, and weeks later, on April 22, 2002, he was ousted in a special session of the 145-nation chemical weapons watchdog.

The story behind his ouster has been the subject of interpretation and speculation for years, and Mr. Bustani, a Brazilian diplomat, has kept a low profile since then. But with the agency thrust into the spotlight with news of the Nobel Prize last week, Mr. Bustani agreed to discuss what he said was the real reason: the Bush administration’s fear that chemical weapons inspections in Iraq would conflict with Washington’s rationale for invading it. Several officials involved in the events, some speaking publicly about them for the first time, confirmed his account. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq sliding towards civil war

Time reports: Early Monday morning, more than a dozen car bombs ripped through mostly Shi‘ite neighborhoods in Baghdad, killing at least 50 people and leaving dozens lying bloodied in the streets. The worst attack that day was in heavily Shi‘ite Sadr City, where a man parked a white car near an area where day laborers gather; a bomb inside erupted, killing seven people and wounding 16.

Such reports have become commonplace over the past few months, as violence in Iraq has escalated to levels unfathomable in almost any other country, and by any metric — death tolls, frequency, geographic distribution — it’s becoming worse. For decades, the Baath Party of toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, composed mostly of secular Sunnis, ruled Iraq’s majority Shi‘ite population and ruthlessly kept a lid on sectarian tensions. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion overturned the Saddam regime, Shi‘ites controlled the new government. This year, violence in Iraq has been largely the result of a Sunni bombing campaign aimed at the Shi‘ite-dominated political status quo. The civil war in neighboring Syria — itself a volatile, sectarian conflict — has spilled across the border, and Sunni jihadi factions are operating in both countries. Now, four months before the next parliamentary elections, Iraq increasingly appears to be spiraling toward a civil war.

Since 2006, when Iraq then under U.S. occupation convulsed in sectarian bloodshed, violence has been driven mainly by internal divisions, and after the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, the Shi‘ite-dominated government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been unable to stop the killing. “The struggle for power is not conducted along neat Shia versus Sunni or Islamist versus secular dividing lines,” a May report by British think tank Chatham House explained. “However, issues of identity, rights and interests have often found sectarian expression in periods of upheaval and transition.”

It’s spreading as well. Until this weekend, much of the violence has occurred in Baghdad and its environs, largely sparing Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in the north. For most of the past decade, Iraq’s Kurdish region has been immune to the bloodshed. When American troops occupied Iraq, no American soldiers were killed there. But this weekend, as the results of the region’s parliamentary elections were announced, suicide bombers in the Kurdish capital Erbil attacked a building housing the Kurdish security forces, setting off gunfights in the streets. According to the regional government, six attackers and six members of the security forces were killed.

Iraq’s tumultuous year began when the Shi‘ite-dominated government’s security forces raided the home of Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, touching off antigovernment protests in several provinces. In April, security forces clashed with protesters and Sunni gunmen in the northern city of Hawija, leaving dozens of mostly Sunnis dead. More than 700 people were killed in April alone.

Attacks then picked up in the spring and summer. According to the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq, more than 1,000 Iraqis were killed in July, the deadliest month in the country since sectarian violence peaked in 2006 and ’07. More than 800 were killed in August, and the U.N. estimates that nearly 1,000 were killed in September. Since the April protests began, more than 5,000 Iraqis have been killed in the violence. [Continue reading...]

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