Vinegar Joe and the Village People

November 2, 2010

“The fear of war is worse than war itself.” – Seneca

Saving Islam from Itself

Sometimes the past provides instructive precedent. Yet just as often, history is meaningless for those who choose not learn from it. Several generations ago, soldiers saw a necessary relationship between war and winning.  Today’s brass seems to have foresworn goals like victory for more ambiguous objectives like “stability.” Joe Stillwell must be rolling in his grave.

Stillwell was an iconic, albeit unsung, hero of WWII. At the start of the war, among his peers, he was thought to be one of the best and most demanding troop commanders on active duty. His soldiers called him “Vinegar Joe.” Between wars, Stillwell had several tours as military attaché in China, acquiring a fluency in Mandarin. George Marshall assigned Stillwell to the China/Burma Theater.

Stillwell’s jungle campaigns were overshadowed, then as now, by  Admiral Nimitz, General MacArthur, and ultimately by an Air Corps B-29 over Hiroshima carrying a single bomb called Little Boy. The great achievement of Stillwell and his air commander, Claire Chennault (of the Flying Tigers), was that they tied down the core of the Japanese Imperial Army in China while Nimitz and MacArthur spilled guts and garnered glory in their Pacific island hopping campaigns.

Stillwell did not suffer fools gladly. He and George Marshall got along well enough, but he made no secret of his disdain for British and Chinese “allies;” the timidity of Lord Louis Mountbatten and the posturing of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Vinegar Joe’s acerbic personality didn’t help much either. In the end, Roosevelt fired Stillwell at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek in the closing days of 1944. Six months later, the war was over. A little more than a year after that, Stillwell died quietly in bed at the Presidio from cancer.

Surely, the Second World War produced more flamboyant generals, like McArthur and Patton, but Stillwell set a standard for competence and modesty.

Surviving photos of Joseph Stillwell (right) reveal a man who looked more like an aesthetic than a warrior; thin as a rail, balding, and bespectacled. Even his dress uniform was austere, just US lapel insignia and stars on his shoulders. Stillwell knew that real leaders had no need to wear a resume on their chests. “Fruit salad” and vinegar were a poor mix.

If Joe Stillwell’s ghost walked into a Joint Chiefs meeting today at the Pentagon, it would be a little like watching Leonidas meeting the Village People. And to be honest, most of the colors are awarded for attendance, not achievement. It’s always easier to give soldiers a ribbon than it is to give them a promotion or raise.

And this emphasis on appearances is not without penalty. Recall the sad tale of Admiral Boorda, the late Chief of US Naval Operations, who committed suicide after it was discovered that he had awarded himself a Vietnam combat ribbon that he had not earned.

The hazards of emphasizing form over substance are not limited to personal humiliations. Looking good seems to be the new being good; a heretofore merit based military culture is absorbing an ethic of political correctness at the expense of victory. This new military idiom has very significant tactical and strategic implications. Admiral Mike Mullen, at the Pentagon, and General Dave Patraeus, in Afghanistan, provide examples.

Mullen is in danger of becoming the JCS Chairman best remembered for adopting the gay “rights” tar baby. The administration is hostage to a campaign promise and wants some high profile uniformed officer to win over Mullen’s four star peers. So far it’s tough sledding.

Clearly the White House and Congress are playing “kick the can” with the gay issue. Mullen and the Chiefs should be smart enough to punt the problem back where it belongs. The Pentagon has more important things to do in wartime. If the Congress wants to advance the ball, they might pass a law to retract “don’t ask/don’t tell” and surely the brass will salute smartly. Indeed, the President himself has recommended such an approach.

If gay issue is a tactical distraction, the political correctness of General Dave Petraeus has strategic implications. The Patraeus political digressions make former ISAF commander General Stan McChrystal’s loose talk look like prophesy. The difference between these two flag officers is candor; McChrystal had it and Patraeus does not.

The latter has become a megaphone for several politically correct misrepresentations; blaming Israel, Afghan withdrawal ambiguity, and suggestions that terror groups, including the Taliban, might be appeased – in the interest of “stability” or political solutions.

The blame Israel canard was on full display when Patraeus, as CENTCOM commander, dispatched a team of staffers to several Arab countries in order to take the pulse of the Arab street. The team returned and prepared a briefing that suggested America could or should make a deal with terrorists on Israel’s borders: Hezbollah, Fattah, and Hamas. Never mind that none of these Arab groups can manage to partner with each other, least of all Israel.  Now Patraeus has apparently carried the appeasement paradigm to South Asia where talk of making deals with the Taliban is rampant.

The Petraeus argument has three facets; victory is impossible, all possible solutions are political, and the key to political stability is a radical change to the long-standing policy of American/Israeli solidarity. A sordid axiom of the Petraeus worldview links Israeli intransigence to American casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. The attempt to link Israeli domestic policy to NATO casualties worldwide was later repeated by Vice President Joe Biden on his trip to the Mid-East. The military and political logic here comes perilously close to a classic anti-Semitic argument.

The CENTCOM analysis and its derivatives are fatally flawed on several counts. Legitimate pollsters audit Arab sentiments on a regular basis; anti-Jewish sentiment consistently registers in the upper 90th percentile. And scholars who have audited historical paranoia, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism in Arabia and the larger Muslim world agree that these phenomena pre-date the state of Israel by millennia.

Any connection between American foreign or Israeli domestic policies and future casualties in Iraq or South Asia is unsupportable too.  General Petraeus should know that there are no military operations analyses which measure events which might or do not happen.  Indeed, if a thread links Islamist terror worldwide, it is anti-Semitism, not opposition to Israeli policies. The Mumbai attack which struck a Jewish center in India is illustrative. Pakistani jihadists were instructed that “the lives of Jews (not Israelis) were worth 50 times those of non-Jews.”

There is no evidence that any kind of Israeli/Palestinian settlement would have any impact on Islamism worldwide. The historical evidence suggests just the opposite. Since the end of the Vietnam War, US forces have intervened on behalf of Muslims on a dozen occasions.  There are few if any indications that such human and material largesse altered radical opinions, terror tempos, or the intensity of the propaganda jihad.

The Patraeus/Biden analysis fails to consider unintended consequences; the abundant evidence that appeasement will be seen as weakness or a lack of resolve. Islamists define victory as the elimination of Israel and the submission of the West. Beyond appeasement, General Petraeus’ objectives reflect no such clarity.

The crux of the modern flag officer dilemma is modesty – or lack of it. The tendency of senior officers to regale themselves like refugees from the HMS Pinafore is merely an image problem; the treacherous waters of politics and political correctness are far more troublesome. No serving military officer should be asked, nor should they accept, any mission which asks them to campaign in domestic culture wars. No flag officers should be asked to fight for, or front for, changes in foreign policy. And no soldier should believe that ambiguous delusions like “stability” are a substitute for victory.

The military is the blunt instrument of policy; it is not a test bed, nor is it a policy think tank. Surely, military officers should provide discrete and confidential advice, but this should not be confused with consent. The Joint Chiefs and their subordinates execute national policy; they do not make it or approve it.

Joe Stillwell had more than his share of disagreements with his peers and President Roosevelt. He didn’t like his assignment and his theater allies were less than helpful. Nonetheless, Stillwell held the Japanese by the nose while others kicked their azimuth.  He never lost sight of his duty as a soldier; making the most of what he had and winning by inches.

To this end, Vinegar Joe’s heirs might consider two suggestions. For appearances sake, the wearing of decorations, save the highest medal, purple hearts, and most the recent campaign ribbon should be optional. Real warriors don’t need chest hair or fruit salad.

And in the interests of strategic clarity, General Patraeus should understand that the struggle with Islamism is not binary; i.e. military or political. The Islamic threat, like a pentagon, has five facets; ideology, religion, culture, politics, and violent jihad.

Any general who no longer believes in winning or victory in any of these venues ought to keep that sentiment to himself – or find another line of work. On his worst day in the jungles of Burma, Vinegar Joe would have never told his troops; “We are not here to win”.

We seem to have bought into the Colin Powell’s “Pottery Barn” analogy, the notion that, if we break anything in the Islamic world, we own it. Ironically, it was Powell’s disingenuous presentation to the United Nations which justified the second Iraq war and subsequent occupation. The difference between the strategy of George Bush senior and his son is this question of occupation or presence on Muslim soil after, or if, the shooting subsides. For the moment, the Obama administration and General Patraeus seem to have accepted the occupation paradigm. It’s hard to believe that any politician will bring the “nation building” definition of victory into another presidential election cycle.

So the question remains. Assuming we are at war with Islam or Islamists, or both; what does victory look like? Victory may look a lot like disengagement or, better still, redeployment and a reprioritization of targets within the Islamist threat matrix.

Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a threat to strategic energy sources. That threat has been neutralized. Afghanistan is a threat to itself and possibly will continue to be one of many terror sanctuaries. All the while, the threat to Israel and the Levant is obscured by the smoke from these small wars. Unfortunately, the Islamist threat in the Middle East is existential; Iraq and Afghanistan, in contrast, are merely troublesome.

Yet, by accident or design, NATO is now stuck in the muck of Islamic nation building and there’s very little evidence that the alliance is capable or inclined to cope with another contingency – such as a perfect storm over Israel. That storm is forecast by a convergence of interests: Persian nuclear ambitions and the growing conventional capability of Arab non-state radicals encircling Israel.

Thus victory for NATO might look like Iraq and Afghanistan in the rear view mirror. Victory might even look like candor, an admission that the Islamist threat is not limited to South Asia or bin Laden and al Qaeda.

When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia funded half the clandestine war against the Communists. Now that the threat comes from co-religionists, the Saudis have another standard.

Victory might also look like reassignment of responsibility; i.e. re-gifting the expense and manpower for the war on terror, counter-insurgency, and nation building to the Arab League. Only Muslims can save Islam from itself.

The goals of fanatics have been crystal clear for 50 years. They seek to circumscribe the influence of reason, freedom, and democracy in the West. Indeed, the Islamist definition of victory is captured in a word: submission. Fanatics also seek to eradicate the state of Israel. Our goals should have similar clarity. We might put the Muslim world on notice, Arabs and Persians in particular: Europe and America will defeat any threat to democratic institutions including Israel – no matter the cost.

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This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of the New English Review. The author  also writes at Agnotology in Journalism.

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Who Betrays Us?

July 6, 2010

 

“If everybody is thinking alike, then someone isn’t thinking.” – George S. Patton 

Crystal is not glass. Strike crystal and it rings like a bell. When it breaks, crystal makes a special noise, a sound like the end of music. The other day, we heard the end of a special elergy, the 24 notes of taps, when General Stanley McChrystal furled his flag.

McChrystal was no ordinary infantryman; he chose the road not taken. Rangers are a unique fraternity where only extraordinary warriors thrive. Those who rise to the top in any calling often walk a fine line between genius and eccentricity, soldiers are no exception. General McChrystal crossed the line more than once, but he never stepped on a land mine until Rolling Stone magazine came to do a “profile” at HQ Afghanistan.

The agent of McChrystal’s demise was an effete free lancer who looks and sounds like a prep school refugee. Lest anyone pretend the author of “The Runaway General” didn’t have an agenda, Michael Hastings coined the following journalistic axioms in an earlier piece for GQ:

“You pretend to be friendly and non-threatening. And over time you build trust, which everyone knows is an illusion. If the time comes, if your editors calls for it, you’re supposed to f–k them (your subject) over.”

Hastings was on special assignment for a magazine whose usual fare is sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Yet, like Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone has cultural pretensions.  Those affectations were on full display in the McChrystal issue. Lady Gaga (sic) graces the cover; equipped with a bullet brassiere on full auto. Ms. Gaga is a performance artist whose cultural niche is defined by Madonna groupies.

Like Hefner, Wenner panders to a young and, by their own definition, hip demographic of readers under 30 years of age; although both publishers might charitably be described as priapic geriatrics, 84 and 64 years of age respectively. Like all purveyors of progressive culture, Wenner has trouble separating value and vulgar. And, to no one’s surprise, he consistently carries water for the left; as a Clintonista or, more recently, as an Obama contributor.

From any perspective, we have to assume that General McChrystal, and/or his staff, was aware of these things and the risks of having of an anti-war zealot in their midst. The key question to be answered is; who was using whom?

After Afghanistan, a maverick like McChrystal wasn’t going to be selected for a political job like Army Chief of Staff. Hard to picture McChrystal, like the incumbent George Casey, making the rounds of the Sunday gab shows reminding citizens that the feelings of Muslims were more important than the safety of soldiers massacred at Ft. Hood, Texas.  And surely McChrystal wasn’t a candidate to follow Mike Mullen into the political swamp at the JCS. On the Pentagon’s E Ring, Mullen is better known for social issues, like gay “rights” for sailors, than he is for war fighting. There were no stars in McChrystal’s future either; he already had his four.

McChrystal is a country music fan; no doubt he’s familiar with Kristofferson’s iconic line: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” When McChrystal let the fox into the Afghan hen house, he knew which huevos were in play.

Before the Rolling Stone controversy, the friction between the “White House wimps” and the military brass was the worst kept secret in Washington. Yet the rift, from the beginning was cultivated by the president – and what can only be described as a cabal of divisive beltway toadies. From the start, Obama ignored the field commander, refused to define the enemy or describe the end game – or explain to the American public why Afghanistan “is a war of necessity.” The party line had three “soft” features; don’t use the word “war,” don’t mention Islam, and restrict descriptions of the bad guys to either Taliban or al Qaeda.

Shortly after the election, Obama put on his long pants and fired the previous ISAF commander in Afghanistan – and then dithered for months over troop deployments. Since then, the White House has been driving on a learner’s permit. In the past year and a half, the commander in chief has met the tactical commander on few occasions; McChrystal, in contrast, has met with Hamid Karzai, face to face, over 50 times during the same period. If McChrystal claims Obama is only “disengaged” on the subject of war: the general is being generous.

The hapless Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D- Nevada), told America that the Iraq “war is lost,” just before the last American election. A newly elected Vice President followed up with very public carping at General McChrystal’s expense. If there were ever a toady who should be cashiered for loose lips; it’s Joe Biden (hereafter known as Joe “bite me” to troops in the field). Biden doesn’t just put his foot in his mouth; he doesn’t bother to remove his shoes after he steps in something. Biden’s advice on Iraq was to subdivide, i.e. three new states (sic), as if the UN didn’t have enough dysfunctional members.

“Team” Obama was augmented by Richard Holbrooke and Karl Eikenberry early on, both sent to Kabul, presumably, to make sure McChrystal walked the “soft power” walk. Unfortunately, neither Holbroke nor Eikenberry play well with other adults.

Holbrooke’s function in South Asia is a dark swan. He doesn’t seem to get along with anyone but himself. In the foggy world of diplomacy, androgyny, and cookie pushing; Holbrooke stands out. He is supposed to be a special envoy; but, his specialties might be limited to arrogance and petulance. Holbrooke, former Clintonista and incumbent Karzai basher, doesn’t play well with 3rd World leaders or allied military officers.

And Eikenberry’s performance isn’t too far removed from Holbrooke’s.  Soon after arriving in Kabul, Ambassador Eikenberry started to “back channel” McChrystal, (i.e. send critical, uncomplimentary reports back to Washington). Indeed, Eikenberry pique seems to have been tweaked because a Brit, and not Eikenberry, was appointed “viceroy”; a slight he seems to lay at the feet of a Karzai/McChrystal conspiracy. Eikenberry was miscast by Rolling Stone as a martinet “stuck in 1985;” the year may be closer to 1895 and the Eikenberry character could have come straight out of  Gilbert and Sullivan.

On the UN side of Kabul, the blue helmets were having a civil war of their own. Norway’s Kai Eide, and his American deputy, Peter Galbraith, had a transnational shoot out over the legitimacy of Hamid Karzai’s election in 2009. Galbraith got fired, Karzai got a second term, and Eide took the Quisling special back to Scandinavia. Eide was and remains an ardent fan of accommodation with the Taliban

These “team” players were supplemented by a gaggle of second guessers back in Washington with the president’s national security advisor, Jim Jones, on point. Jones’ most recent contribution to the clueless sweeps was a “greedy Jew” joke spliced into a speech that was supposed to underline American support of Israel. After 18 months in office, the commander in chief has traveled to several Arab, Turkish, and Muslim capitals, yet never to Israel. Mr. Obama’s Islamic globe trotting sends a message consistent with Jones’ taste in jokes. From the beginning, the former Marine commandant, like Joe Biden, also made loud noises that undermined or contradicted McChrystal’s strategy at the front.

So what’s a soldier to do when a president hand picks you to lead the charge in combat and then allows rear echelon cockroaches to eat your lunch? McChrystal did what any good guerrilla fighter would do; he let another insect carry a poison pill back to a dysfunctional nest. Indeed, General McChrystal performed one final service for his country; he used a press nitwit to expose a confederacy of national security dunces; using the prescribed “soft” tactics – things like toxic ridicule.

A cipher in all of this is Hilary; she comes off like the Cheshire cat; grinning from ear to ear while the Oval Office tries to put lipstick on another pig. Clinton has kept her distance; “give him (McChrystal) what he wants;” says she. If and when the Obama national security crowd self-destructs, Hilary can say “I told you so,” pick up the pieces, and do a pants suit rendition of what Bobby Kennedy did to Lyndon Johnson in 1968.

Any idea that McChrystal was insubordinate or threatened civilian authority is bravo sierra, as they say in the barracks. The general simply raised the blinds and let in some light. He even helped the young president to grow up a bit. On the day Obama let his field commander go, the president used the word “war” to describe the Afghan conflict. That’s progress! Obama then appointed a third field commander in 18 months; demoting the CENTCOM commander to replace McChrystal in Kabul.

And yes, the new guy is the old David Petraeus who, when serving in Iraq under George Bush, was vilified by the left, including then Senator Obama, as a liar and traitor. Indeed, the same news outlets that published those scurrilous George Soros ads, now celebrate the Petraeus choice as “inspired.” General “betray us” under a Republican has morphed into General “save us” under a Democrat. So much for politics stopping at the water’s edge.

So what’s the plan now? It appears the exit strategy for Iraq and Afghanistan is on schedule (according to Joe bite me) and Petraeus will be the happy face of at least one success even if it belongs to the previous administration. Yet, the president is still hostage to a campaign slogan, that “war of necessity.” Unfortunately, the Oval Office position is already flanked left and right. The incumbent does not want to carry any war, of choice or necessity, into the next presidential cycle. And the Cheshire cat just grins and waits.

All of which highlights the distinction between politics, Chicago style and principled soldiering, McChrystal style. Given a choice between sacrifice and survival, which road do men of character take? McChrystal has answered that question; he fell on his sword. Obama will get back to us in 13 months.

Stanley McChrystal may have furled his flag, but let’s hope he has not spiked his guns. In or out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat whose name we dare not speak will get worse before it gets better. When it does, real soldiers will need to strap on their irons again. Keep your powder dry, Stan.

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This essay originally appeared in the 29 June 10 issue of American Thinker. The author is a Vietnam veteran with 25 years of military service. He also writes at Agnotology in Journalism.