Sunday, October 29, 2006

Chris Powell Views The Front Lines


Sunday, October 29, 2006



At a small U.S. military base in the scorching desert of northern Kuwait a few miles from the Iraq border, three helicopters disgorge some unusual cargo for the young Marines and Army Rangers to incorporate into their day's training -- 45 middle-aged civilians from home.

An Army general escorts the civilians into an air-conditioned hut to play a videotape showing a few seconds of activity at a military checkpoint in Iraq. Two cars stop at the checkpoint. A third car pulls up behind them. As a soldier approaches the third car, it explodes and the soldier disappears in flame, shrapnel, and smoke. The tape ends.

Today's exercise, the civilians are told, will be to convoy two dozen armored vehicles to another base 15 miles across the desert, past mock roadside explosives, snipers, suicide bombers, and the like. The civilians will put on flak vests and helmets, get some quick weapons training, and then be put to work as Humvee turret gunners and infantrymen riding shotgun.

What procedure, a civilian asks the general, would have defended against the suicide bomber in that videotape?

The general can't suggest one.

Then it's out into the desert for the convoy exercise.

The exercise lasts a couple of hours and is tense, dramatic, and disconcerting for the civilians. When they reach the other base they are led into a hut to join the Marines and Rangers for MREs, the military's self-heating boxed lunch. The civilians only pick at the food inside; they haven't yet been in the desert long enough to get that hungry. (Each MRE thoughtfully includes a wad of toilet paper.) But the soldiers don't poke fun at their visitors; to the contrary, the soldiers are solicitous of them and delighted by the interest from home. They make their visitors feel like humanitarians for stopping by.

In a few days the soldiers will be sent north into the maw of the Iraqi civil war. Some may be killed; others may return with horrible wounds. The visitors are terrified for them. But the soldiers are confident in their training, leadership, and camaraderie; they show no fear.

The visitors make their goodbyes and hike over to the helicopters that have come to retrieve them. Like Princess Diana and other such humanitarians, they are airlifted hundreds of miles away to a lovely dinner at a beautiful hotel.

* * *

Lord of our far-flung battle line --
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine --
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!

Thus Kipling prayed for the preceding empire. Today's far-flung battle line is American, and this month the Defense Department offered those 45 civilians a week-long scrutiny of some of it. It was the department's 72nd Joint Civilian Orientation Conference, and this one was tied to the launch of the department's campaign to involve the country more with its soldiers, a campaign called "America Supports You" (

Maybe something will come of this campaign; it is long overdue. For so far America's idea of supporting the troops has been mainly a matter of affixing magnetic yellow ribbons to cars, self-righteous displays of piety in which even the Defense Department may be complicit.

For the walls of the Pentagon itself carry posters showing Uncle Sam remarking sternly, "There's a war on. Are you doing all you can?" And of course only the soldiers themselves are doing all they can. The government has demanded no military draft, no war tax, no rationing -- none of the sacrifices demanded during World War II. No, today the country could not be more removed from the spirit of "one for all and all for one." Most of the country is not engaged with its military. If people don't like the war news, they can just change the channel.

Too bad. For it was hard for participants in JCOC 72 not to be awed and humbled by the work they saw being done cheerfully by those in uniform throughout what the military likes to call "southwest Asia," even if that sounds a little too much like the zone of the last big U.S. war, also misconceived, "southeast Asia." But JCOC 72's inspection of U.S. military operations in the area suggests that any failures will be more the result of political decisions than military ones.

Some observations from that inspection:

1) Terrible political strategy is obscuring a strong military position.

The decision to patrol and police Baghdad, to mediate the Iraqi civil war, and thereby take unlimited casualties without ever holding ground is a political decision, not a military one, and it is giving the misimpression that the U.S. military position in the area is weakening.

But most of the area is empty desert, and unlike the jungles of southeast Asia, the desert is easily held, for there is no place to hide. Indeed, the entire western shore of the Arabian Gulf -- they don't call it the Persian Gulf anymore, the Arab principalities being our allies and the Persians, the Iranians, being our foes -- is covered with U.S. air, naval, and army bases, while the gulf itself is covered with the U.S. 5th Fleet. Some of the bases are enormous, just out of sight of the gleaming new cities that are furiously being built on oil wealth.

The gulf principalities play host to these bases and even have paid for some of them because their independence and wealth are largely matters of American protection. The Westernizing, secularizing, and democratizing that come with the prosperity of the principalities are likely to rub off on the neighbors. Meanwhile, very little moves in the area without being monitored intimately from above by the Americans and their astounding technology. It isn't really the Arabian Gulf either; it is actually the American Gulf.

Iran could mess with the gulf with missiles but only at the cost of initiating a general war it would lose. So Iran and its religious fanaticism are being contained. And Iran and the whole colossus of religious fanaticism from Sudan to Afghanistan could be set at its own throat by the waging of a culture war, a war of publicity and ridicule against bigotry and oppression, a war more likely to prompt reform than a war of bombs and guns.

2) This is not the Foreign Legion.

The stereotype is that the military is for those who are running away from life or the law or can't find something better to do. That's not how it looks up close.

Of course there are some lost souls trying to find themselves after lonely upbringings or trouble in school, but most military personnel are sharp, trim, crisp, articulate, and expert in something and sometimes many things. Some had felt a calling. Some had fallen into a devotion. Others had been looking for particular training likely to be of use in civilian life later. Some enlisted out of patriotism after 9/11. All are serving something far bigger than themselves, and most exude competence. From the lowest to highest ranks the genders, races, and classes are working together as comrades. The generals and admirals are thoughtful and incisive, and not bombastic or even particularly bureaucratic, except for their almost comic obsession with the acronyms that designate their commands.

This competence is enough to raise the question of whether the military has replaced the public schools as the country's great integrating, educating, and elevating institution. At least the military demonstrates the [ITALICS] necessity [END ITALICS] of performing and mastering one's work, since one's life and the lives of one's comrades depend on it.

The logic of this competence would be to legislate a system of national service, even though the generals and admirals seem not to want it and the country's self-indulgence would probably never permit it politically. But can a country sustain itself with self-indulgence?

3) There is a necessary mission for the United States in southwest Asia quite apart from Iraq.

Of course it is about oil, and there's nothing wrong with that. For the whole world, not just the United States, relies on the tankers that steam through the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea, and only the United States and its allies can ensure freedom of the seas there. Otherwise, at best there would be piracy, and at worst Iran or some other power would gain a chokehold on the world.

But in some areas it is also a matter of nurturing any normal government to take jurisdiction and responsibility and thereby prevent the anarchy in which tribal warfare and terrorism thrive, as has been the case in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, and Sudan.

So at the end of the far-flung American battle line is the primitive Camp Lemonier in tiny Djibouti in Africa, a former French Foreign Legion base guarding the entrance to the Red Sea. "It's not hell," the base's soldiers and sailors joke, "but you can see it from here."

Besides its sand and rocks, Djibouti has little more than its strategic position, which it leases for a few million dollars annually. It also gets some humanitarian concern from the Navy Seabees from Camp Lemonier.

A few days ago a few Seabees were living in huts a 15-minute helicopter ride from the base across the Gulf of Tadjourah in the tiny, dusty, dirt-poor village of the same name, where the Seabees were expanding a school and renovating a hospital that has a Cuban doctor and an Italian ambulance.

The last time the world noticed Tadjourah was two years ago, when it was identified as a center of female genital mutilation. But on this day some of the village's young women are dressed happily in colorful wraps, and their smiles are so warm and their beauty so stunning amid the desolation that some visitors are shaken into dark reflections on the accidents of birth.

The Seabees seem long past such reflections. They have been digging. Tadjourah's school now has a soccer field and soon it will have a lunch room and the hospital will have some sanitation -- maybe moving the village a little farther from hell.


Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Conn. He recently participated in the U.S. Defense Department's 72nd Joint Civilian Orientation Conference.


Anonymous said...

I've been reading Powell for years. That is some of his best writing. Informative, historical, geographical and whimsical all at once. Nice job.

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