Sunday, October 21, 2007

Defend the Constitution or Bush: Your Choice

Recall that swearing in
And reach beyond the grin
Of satisfaction
For attraction
To a vow to defend
Without an end
Our Constitution’s words
From all herds
Without and within
Including next of kin

I have a brief but true story that needs to be told, but first I want to comment on the recent words by General Ricardo Sanchez. When I first read them, I was flooded with mixed emotions. While I firmly believe that he had every right to criticize his civilian leaders and I agree with many of his conclusions, I was annoyed if not angry that he said nothing when he had the power to influence events in Iraq and I could not help but wonder why. Could it be that his job was so important that he said “Yessir, yessir, three bags full" during his tenure as Commander in Iraq, but felt that he could not speak truth to power without punishment of some kind? I have lost my anger and I feel that I understand that he may actually be doing some good by enabling discussion of leader performance in Iraq.
My story begins when I was a major leading several instructors at an Army school. One instructor, CPT S. came to me and reported that the class commander had asked a question and that he had answered truthfully. The class had been on break when the guidon bearer got careless and placed the class guidon in a spot where it was picked up by one of the cadre. After the break, the cadre leader asked the class commander where the guidon was. When he stated that he did not know but that the class had it at the break, he was told that the entire class should produce 5 cases of beer for the cadre in order to get it back. The question the student commander asked my instructor was simply: “Is that my only choice?” CPT S. correctly stated that if the guidon was misappropriated to extort beer from the students that, indeed, there were other choices.
I supported CPT S. without reservation and called JAG to be sure that it was a matter of record and that I would not tolerate retaliation against the class or its student commander. My boss, LTC R. supported me and the lines were quickly drawn with his boss, COL H. in strong opposition. Soon, this tempest in a beer glass escalated to the point where CPT S. was threatened. I asked for a summit conference with COL H. with my boss being present to defuse the situation. There was no mollifying the colonel and soon there were threats against the student commander and I again called JAG to investigate the threats of dismissal for him. JAG interceded and the student graduated from the basic course despite the anger of the colonel and the cadre. My boss later protected me in his rating but could not shield me from my endorser (the colonel), nor could he protect himself from the same colonel.
Colonel H. invoked “tradition” as his written reason for a lowered endorsement for me and also for my boss’ lowered rating. I do not regret my actions nor would I choose to change my decision. I have lost no sleep over it because extortion is illegal and if that is a tradition, it is not a tradition worth maintaining. I refused an order from the colonel to support the cadre and simultaneously violate my oath as an officer and he refused to put the order in writing as I requested at the summit conference, so I took the hit along with my boss. Stuff happens.
Return to the Iraq war and General Sanchez. General Sanchez had Abu Ghraib happen right under his nose as well as on his watch and it appears that he chose to minimize it as documented in the Taguba Report. He accepted the troop number limitations, deployments, and other high level decisions without public comment. Would Sanchez have lost his job if he had commented publicly or even privately? Absolutely! Did he lose his job anyway? Yup…he never lost the smell of Abu Ghraib and he was retired without getting that fourth star. The satisfaction of making the right moral and ethical decision is not in the reward that you might get, but in being at peace with yourself for living up to your oath. You may take a hit…even a big hit, but if General Sanchez felt the nation was ill served by the national policy and the decisions, was it his choice or was it his duty to say so clearly and maybe even in a summit conference with the boss’ boss? I vote for duty. General Sanchez was a little late, but he finally made roll call. Don’t expect kudos, General Sanchez. Expect punishment from those who disagree and you will never be disappointed. By the way, the cadre never extorted for beer again, so maybe my own little decision had some positive effect in that small way.
George Giacoppe
LTC, USA, Retired

The Great Disobedience

I have been thinking a lot lately about why people obey. More
particularly about why people obey bad leaders. Think of them all: Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the Shah of Iran, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Idi Amin, Augusto Pinochet. The list is endless. And in each case it's one insane fool somehow getting masses of people to do his insane bidding. Nor is it just politicians who manage to amass enough power‹usually the power of armies
they control‹to enforce their decisions. It's the CEOs of predatory corporations as well: the Waltons of Wal-Mart, the nameless CEOs of Chevron and Halliburton and General Electric and Disney and Microsoft and Boeing and Monsanto. I mean, what is it with people? The information surely gets out
there‹that the dear leader, as Korea's Kim Jong Il styles himself, is a paranoid schizophrenic delusional asshole whose policies are killing millions, poisoning millions, amassing offshore fortunes for this psychopath to pass on to his equally psychopathic offspring and cronies after he's gone. And yet. People obey. They shoulder their rifles, they salute their
officers, they go off to war and likely death or maiming without a whimper. Standing tall. Proud to serve the cause. Or less grandly, we obey the traffic signals, pay our taxes that go to enrich scoundrels, support with our dollars the useless products that are destroying people and planet alike, and never stop to think why? Why do we do this? Why do we contribute to our own destruction?

I mean, no ruler rules out of absolute strength. Each one relies on the cooperation and collusion, the support and forebearance, tacit or otherwise, of millions. In China, to take the most extreme example, a few bureaucrats control the movements and lives of more than a billion people. Does it not ever occur to that billion that they could rise up and sweep away those heartless, pompous bureaucrats with one breath? Does it not ever occur to all of us in the United States that it is within our power, written in our founding document that if those in power become too deceptive, too intoxicated with their own grandiosity, too royal or tyrannical, it is our
right, our duty, to overthrow them? Or at least to disobey? To refuse to shoulder that rifle, refuse to kill that innocent family in Iraq, refuse to credit any more slick propaganda about the latest incarnation of evil allegedly threatening our homeland?

Apparently not. Partly, it must be, because disobedience, revolt can be messy. Can cost lives. As we see in Burma right now. And the mess can get even messier when disobedience triumphs, as it did in the French Revolution, when thousands of nobles lost their heads. Terror. The terror is never
pretty. Never without loss. Though these days, with the monsters in power, with CEOs raking it all in without concern for starvation or murder or the destruction of the planet, the idea of such a terror begins to seem more and more appealing, for what else can be done with monsters?

But it's not just the fear of consequences that keeps the masses obeying. It must also be training. Training beginning in childhood that inculcates obedience to those in charge. Those who are in charge must be right, the training seems to say, or they wouldn't be in charge. And where disobedience can mean loss or injury or even death, it's prudent to train the children in obedience to the wise and powerful Father.

Still. When the evidence becomes so overwhelming that the Father is a psychopath, that he countenances not only mass murder via Shock and Awe, and mass torture via Guantanamo, and mass exploitation and profit for his oilmen cronies, but is leading the nation to the brink of environmental and
economic disaster‹-is there any way to understand continuing obedience? I mean only recently we have been treated to the spectacle of mothers of soldiers slain in Iraq screaming their support for their leader, screaming their rage at those who question that support, screaming that their sons have died for a noble cause. And all we can say is that surely there is
nothing quite so sad as a mother who has lost her son in battle. Unless it be a mother who remains ignorant of the real truth about that loss: that her son's death, far from being a sacrifice for the freedom we all allegedly enjoy, was really a sacrifice for megalomaniacs who never served, who are capable only of mouthing platitudes and staging photo ops while they enrich
themselves and their friends‹-all those CEOs who are quite willing to sacrifice obedient slobs in uniform in order to protect their precious corporate investments.

And all we can hope is that the great disobedience that is the people's right and duty is building and will arrive soon‹-or soon enough, at least, to cripple the current fool playing at leader long enough to prevent the next disaster he is surely, even now, drooling over.

Lawrence Di Stasi

Friday, October 19, 2007

New Orleans: Deja Vu All Over Again

The more we hear about the attempt to "cleanse" New Orleans of its poor black population (while reconstruction and recovery from Hurricane Katrina
proceeds rapidly for the white, heavily-touristed areas), the more we realize that history runs in repetitive cycles. For the truth is, Americans
have always been suspicious of the exotic denizens of that most fascinating of all American cities. Were it not for its position as indispensable port
city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, it probably would have been abandoned to floods and tides long ago. But it is important. And so Hurricane Katrina has been turned, in the rah rah atmosphere post-Katrina,
into an "opportunity." And the opportunity, again, is not to rebuild New Orleans better, but to rebuild it cleaner, more like what Americans seem to prefer these days‹a theme park without the problem of messy, unsightly poor

Sadly, this is not new. From the time when New Orleans was transformed from an outpost of the French and Spanish empires to an American possession,
many Americans have cast a disgusted eye on this outpost of foreignness. I am referring to the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The port of New
Orleans, not all of Louisiana, was really the issue for President Thomas Jefferson. New Orleans was what he sent his envoys, James Monroe and Robert
Livingston, to France to procure. Stunningly, Napoleon Bonaparte offered the Americans not just the port city, but the whole of the Louisiana Territory. And in history classes, we learn that Jefferson took the deal, paid $15 million, and doubled the size of the nation in one stroke. At 4 cents an acre, the Louisiana Purchase has gone down as one of the greatest real
estate bargains in history.

What we are not told, however, is that there was great American resistance to the deal. Northerners worried that their influence in the new nation would be diminished by the addition of so large a western and
southern territory. They also worried that slavery might be extended into the new territories. But the worry went beyond that. That was because in
Article III of the treaty Napoleon insisted that the inhabitants of New Orleans‹-the French, the Spanish, the free Blacks and part-Blacks and part Indians‹-must all become citizens of the United States. To many Americans,this was like giving the keys of the city to the half-civilized, to "savages and adventurers." New Orleans, to them, was "a place inhabited by a Mixture
of Americans, English, Spanish and French, and crowded every yearÅ .with two or three thousand boatmen from the back country" Others found the denizensof New Orleans and the whole West beneath even that. Josiah Quncy, who would become president of Harvard College, predicted that "thick skinned beasts will crowd Congress Hall, Buffaloes from the head of the Missouri and Alligators from the Red River."

In the end, Jefferson prevailed, and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was ratified. And with it, came New Orleans and all its people. Clearly, however, what has been happening there since, and especially since Katrina, demonstrates that many Americans, in particular our conservative brethren of the heartland, have never quite accepted New Orleans as a place fit to be included in the lily-white, squeaky-clean America of their dreams. It¹s too colorful, in every sense of that word, by far.

And so the bleach job goes on.

And most Americans watch it happen, maintaining all the while their dominant cover story: that America is indeed the land of the free and the home of the equally color-blind‹-except, of course, where property values are concerned.

Lawrence DiStasi

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Privatized Murder and No-Bid Contracts

What means to what ends
As the country defends
Her borders
On orders
Using soldiers for rent
With sovereign consent
From a puppet on strings
And a cowboy on wings
Raising hell and disorder
In the name of Blackwater
Forgive me for repeating my wails on the outsourcing of the military effort to contractors. To review the facts, KBR, Cheney’s Halliburton subsidiary, provided logistics services to our troops on a cost plus basis much as other services by other contractors. In the case of KBR, they provided contaminated water from 63 of 65 water purification stations. One might feel that KBR should not be paid and you would be correct. They were paid, despite protests of the GAO. The count goes on for Parsons that was paid for constructing Iraqi police barracks that were not only unusable, but were a health hazard and had to be destroyed. Both those jobs were well suited to combat engineers or Seabees who do not work on a cost plus basis.
I highlight KBR because that company became the model for privatizing logistics in a war, declared or not. As an old military logistician, I am awestruck by the KBR rules for where they would or would not provide services. They did not provide hot meals for outposts with fewer than 1800 soldiers. In worst case thinking, they got the big bucks no-bid contracts without real risk and were not subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Our troops got MREs when they were lucky and, if we are to believe the media, supplements from families back home. If we had a matter of non-performance, we had contract discussions (probably not in theater). Contractors like KBR do not take orders. To date, despite several findings of overcharging, dangerously contaminated water and general under-performing, their car on the gravy train remains firmly on track
But KBR is not the only contractor in Iraq. In fact, a recent estimate places the contractor share of “military” expenses in Iraq at 40%. They outnumber the military by about 50,000 in aggregate although many are low scale workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh, etc. With cost plus contracts in their pockets and no requirement to perform to a standard, no oversight and immunity from both Iraqi and U.S. law, what’s not to like about this deal? The immunity is a legacy of the Proconsul Bremer who unilaterally eliminated the entire Iraqi Army by fiat thus creating opportunity for outsourcing jobs to American firms and simultaneously creating a motivated, armed and trained insurgency. Records show that Triple Canopy, DynCorp, Blackwater, Aegis (UK) and Armor (UK) all hold huge contracts as security companies directly competing for military roles against our uniformed services that have a less capable lobby. Of course, it did not hurt that Erik Prince (Blackwater CEO) contributed $160,000 (reported) to the GW Bush election campaign.
The nature of cost plus contracts is to minimize financial risk for contractors, and physical risk is a kissing cousin. In the TV documentary “Iraq for Sale,” contract employees stated that they were instructed to destroy trucks with flat tires on logistics runs rather than replace the tires. This meant that the cost plus was applied to an $80,000 truck instead of a $400 tire. Why conserve or take a risk if you are going to be paid more for destroying the truck? In life, some things are mysteries. A cost plus no-bid contract isn’t one of them. The KBR rationale was risk reduction. Not incidentally, the military was called upon to destroy the abandoned trucks.
My verse invoked Blackwater hired by the State Department to provide security for U.S. officials. Unfortunately for hundreds of innocent bystanders, records show that Blackwater fired first 84% of the time when violence erupted. While other companies hovered around the 50% mark, no company came close to Blackwater. Some of the encounters are difficult to explain such as when a Blackwater employee was drunk from a Christmas party and he shot and killed an Iraqi presidential security guard. That employee was flown out of Iraq the next day on State Dept. instructions and fired by Blackwater. The State Department also suggested that Blackwater pay $15,000 to the family of the guard in order to make the situation go away.
I have a simple set of questions that cry out for answers. In addition to paying Blackwater $1 B for the contract, are we reimbursing them for hush money? Do they get a percentage for that unexpected cost? If it is a cost plus 10% contract, did we as taxpayers pay $1500 in bonus money for a drunk to kill an Iraqi security guard?
Well we may never know. Similar records have been classified SECRET because corruption in Iraq is now a security threat if we disclose or discuss it. Shh. I hope that includes the Texan, Ray Hunt that was just with Kurds for an oil contract without the Iraqi Central Government. Hunt is not only a Bush friend and major contributor, but he sits on the National Petroleum Council and the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. Please don’t see this as a conflict of interest by either Hunt or Bush. Primary interest? If you feel that this is counter to the president’s purpose of supporting a strong Central government, you are paranoid. Shh. They will take you away.

George Giacoppe
03 October 2007

Words Are Important and worth Defending

Words keep losing their meaning.
One of my grandmother’s favorite descriptors was “gay”. By that she meant someone, male or female, who was happy and carefree, light-hearted and friendly. I do not begrudge the GLBT community the use of the word, but I do miss, just a little, my grandmother’s felicitous use of the word also.

“Hero” was a word, used universally, and somewhat in awe, to describe valorous action, so remarkably beyond normal human character as to be elevated and admired. I do begrudge the loose application of such a wonderful word to just anyone in uniform.
“Freedom” meant not license, but individual sovereignty in all thought and in all actions except where societal sovereignty superseded, and that only when agreed to in common understanding. I hate the use of “freedom “ to mean subordination of others to my country’s world view.

“Intelligence” used to mean the unbiased product of the processing of the best information available, coupled with the best understanding of the total environment and the specific problem. It did not mean finding information that proves someone’s point.

“Truth” meant simply both “not false” and “complete”, as in “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. Truth did not mean “my extremely heartfelt and/or faith-inspired opinion”.
Faced with these and other important words that have slipped away from us, along with their attendant concepts, I want to defend one word in particular, that holds such importance for serving military and veterans. That word is “trust”.
Trust is what holds military service together, and it is not a simple concept.
Civilians often cite “camaraderie” as a defining characteristic of those groups of usually underpaid public servants who band together and swear an oath of public duty such as soldiers, firemen, and police. But that is a weak concept for the glue that binds them together. Football teams have camaraderie as do social clubs and others. Camaraderie isn’t deep enough a concept to fully embody trust.

“Friendship” is a wonderful concept but it is insufficient to describe soldiers’ feeling of trust for each other. They can trust each other without even truly being friends.
Trust is both broad and deep. Trust involves an extraordinary level of confidence that those above you, next to you, and below you will keep foremost in their minds the safety and well-being of the group, which means your safety too.
Trust is an expectation that your superiors will do everything possible to train you well, to equip you with the best that is available, and will never send you into an impossible situation; not because they might fail, but because you might be harmed without reason.

Trust is a belief that when the going gets tough, everyone around you will strive with you to get through it. Trust is a conviction that if the going gets impossible, your leaders will reinforce you to a level where the mission is achievable, or will honestly, and without fear for their personal reputation, declare the situation untenable and will pull you out, perhaps to fight another day.
Trust is a reliance, not on some “system”, but on the real people around you every day. In battle that focuses mostly on the people in your fire team, your platoon, your company. It this trust that lets soldiers obey orders that they might not always understand completely.

Most of all, soldiers have to trust that they will be sent into danger only if it is absolutely necessary. They trust that their leaders will make every effort short of war to avoid war, and that when war comes, they trust that it is truly the only choice. If they come to think otherwise, trust starts to crumble.
Both before and after the battle that reliance expands broadly to include not just your boss’s bosses, but everyone responsible including the nation as a whole. After the battle, soldiers who have depended only on the guys close around them transfer that dependence to you and me.
Soldiers trust that the nation and its leaders will prepare them, will share completely in their sacrifice, and will provide whatever it takes to make them whole upon their return to society.

We don’t send them enough help, or equip them with the best equipment, then let contracts to commercial firms to put others next to them who are paid a great deal more, get better treatment, get the best of weapons, and who never have to make a moral decision. If soldiers fail we court martial them, fine them, imprison them, and disgrace them for life. If the mercenaries we send in place of real reinforcements commit the same or worse crimes, we spirit them out of the battle zone – no fault, no foul – and give them a bonus to boot. The inequity causes trust to tremble.

They know that their buddies will never leave them on the battlefield, but they have to trust that we will not leave them on the post-conflict, everyday battlefield.

Unfortunately, that is what is happening, and trust is getting very shaky.
If they are hurt in body we patch them up and try to get them back into the battle. If they can’t get back in we try to cover up their wounds, hiding them in substandard conditions in out of the way places. We don’t even count them as wounded if we can find a way around it. Trust fragments.
If they are killed, we hide them from their nation, and dishonor their families by refusing them the public honors they deserve. Trust disintegrates further.
If they are hurt in mind we try to ignore it; if we can’t ignore it we try to deny it; and if we can’t do that, we blame them for it. We cut them off without benefits, claiming their deep wounds are the product of a “preexisting condition”, blaming their genetics or their upbringing. Trust shatters.
If they try to re-start their lives, we quibble with them over what they are owed in education and other benefits. We use technicalities to deny them what we have promised them, and excuse ourselves for what we characterize as their failure to prove their case.

When they seek help we tell them “get in line”, and we make the line impossibly long. If we have managed to get them to agree with our diagnosis of a “preexisting condition” there is no place in line for them at all. Trust is gone forever.
We have not yet completely lost the meaning of the word “trust”.
If you want to know, ask a soldier – but ask him or her very soon.
True trust may not last much longer.
[Sandy Cook.]
“For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. Our friends seldom profit us but they make us feel safe.”
H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956)