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Jul. 30 2010 — 1:46 am | 33 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

I hate long goodbyes

This is my last post for True/Slant. I was never one for extended farewells. So I will keep this mercifully brief. Some of you agreed with I said. Some of you didn’t. That was your privilege. But mine was to have you read my words. This was my first blog. And even decades of as a journalist and writer, I am still awed and flattered that someone – anyone – would or should care about what I say.

I may see you all again in September on a new blog. In the meantime, I’ll be on http://michaelpeck.wordpress.com/ But whether I see you again or not, I hope that I brought something to your world. Because you brought something worthwhile to mine.

Take care.


Jul. 26 2010 — 1:45 pm | 302 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

WikiLeaks or WikiYawn?

Is this the Second Coming of the Pentagon Papers? Will the WikiLeaks deluge of documents mark a turning point in the Afghan war?

“Massive leak of secret files exposes truth of occupation”, proclaims a headline in the Guardian.  John Kerry says they raise significant questions about the conflict. The iconic Daniel Ellsberg himself says he was “very impressed by the release.” Pundits have been focusing on various elements that are mentioned in the papers, such as civilian deaths from American fire, Pakistan’s covert support of the Taliban even while they’re supposed to be fighting them, and the existence of an American special operations group to hunt down Taliban leaders.

Yet when even Mother Jones says the Wikileaks papers are no big deal, then perhaps there’s more smoke than fire here. The best commentary so far comes from counterinsurgency scholar Andrew Exum, whose reaction can be summed as: Dead civilians? Pakistani double-cross? Taliban leaders on a hit list? No kidding? What rock have you been living under?

The Pentagon Papers were a bombshell because they showed that the American government lied when it claimed to want peace in Southeast Asia, even as it escalated the Vietnam war. The snippets I’ve seen of the Afghanistan documents so far aren’t bombshells. They’re routine reports from American soldiers in the field. They mostly say that “we handed out goodies to the civilians. They still don’t like us. Our Afghan allies are a bunch of boobs.” These are not revelations to those who have been following the conflict. And those who don’t follow the war, which includes the majority of the American public, will not be galvanized. Dry bureaucratic reports don’t have the same impact as a video of helicopters strafing Iraqis.

If there is any good to come out of the Afghan and Iraq wars, it’s that any romantic illusions that war is precise and high-tech have been shredded. After nearly 10 years of fighting, we know that civilians die in war.

Unfortunately we have also become anesthetized to this. An after-action report of a botched commando raid that killed civilians isn’t gong to provoke mass protest. And perhaps it shouldn’t, because all wars have their share of stupidity and futility, which are usually documented somewhere in the vast military machine. The difference is that they are being revealed now by WikiLeaks instead of by some historian digging through archives 40 years later.

The WikiLeaks documents will provide ammunition for those who want us out of Afghanistan now. But the ammunition will mostly be blank, because Obama has laid down his Afghanistan policy, and like Johnson and Nixon, he will be reluctant to back out of it. So we will snort and snarl at the Wikileaks Papers. And the war will go on.

Jul. 20 2010 — 12:09 pm | 249 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Can you find your town on this national security map?

Curious about that new office building going up in your town? It just might be the top-secret headquarters of a terrorist-hunting government agency? Wondering who’s got the bucks to pay for new commercial space in the middle of a recession? Good thing there’s no recession in the national security industry.

The most interesting part about the Washington Post’s series on America’s booming national security empire isn’t the revelations about wasteful spending and lack of oversight. It’s the neat map of government installations as well as private contractors who have cashed in on top-secret contracts.

Some very hush-hush organizations occupy some very nondescript buildings. You never know which acronym agency is in that little office park down the road. So let’s take a look at the map. The great state of Oregon, which has almost no federal military installations, but does have five companies doing top-secret work, mostly in the Portland area. Indiana has four companies, New York 51, South Dakota zero (how could the Mount Rushmore state miss out on the gravy train?) and Virginia several hundred. If defense dollars make the heart grow fonder, then Virginia really is for lovers.

Does your town have a top-secret government installation or contractor? Take a look at this map.

Jul. 14 2010 — 12:01 pm | 405 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The wit and wisdom of America’s fighting general

General James Mattis eats nails, sleeps on nails, and can break a jihadi in half with one fingernail. At least that’s the impression you get from reading about the new boss of Central Command, which oversees the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Marine Corp general’s tough-talking style has attracted a lot of admirers among defense reporters, who have compiled a list of “mattisisms”. Some of the more notable ones:

* “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

* “You are part of the world’s most feared and trusted force. Engage your brain before you engage your weapon.”

*  “When Gen. Abrial arrived to relieve me as the supreme commander, only don’t ask, don’t tell kept me from hugging and kissing him.”

Here’s an Atlantic compilation of 16 favorite Mattis quotes. And here’s a Twitter page devoted to mattisisms. Some are from Mattis, and some are quips about Mattis (“General Mattis doesn’t cheat death. He wins fair and square.”):

Tell me Gen. Mattis doesn’t chomp cigars. It just wouldn’t be right if he didn’t.

But James Mattis is no “kill ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out” cowboy. That’s not the sort of man who rises to become a four-star general in the Marine Corps, which tends to think more out of the box than the other services. Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman describes Mattis as a man who helped author the military’s counterinsurgency manual, and one who believes that people are more important than technology in war (“What are we creating today with our command-and-control systems? I don’t think we have turned off our radios in the last eight years.”) There’s a brain behind the cigar.

Obama might say about Gen. Mattis what Lincoln said about Gen. Grant: “I can’t spare this man. He fights.” Then again, a fighting general in a grinding, unpopular counterinsurgency campaign might not be the ticket, especially as casualties soar as America pours in more troops. Yet if you’re going to fight a war, better a tough commander determined to impose his will on the enemy.  Or as Mattis says: “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”

Jun. 23 2010 — 3:01 pm | 799 views | 1 recommendations | 7 comments

Better a strong president than a great general

Changing commanders in the middle of a war is never easy. Lincoln fired lethargic General McClellan and appointed Grant to command the Army of the Potomac. The troops were not happy with the change. Truman fired General MacArthur, and conservatives hammered him for it.

Now Obama has fired McChrystal, and he will almost certainly pay a price. Obama’s critics will claim that his field commander knew better than he did, and that McChrystal was fired because Obama couldn’t handle the truth. Obama shouldn’t worry. Lincoln and Truman survived, and fared better in the history books than the would-be warlords they dismissed. In the end, Americans would rather have a strong president than a good general.

The fact is that good or bad, generals are replaceable. That is how the military is designed. If a commander falls, another takes his place, with the same training and knowledge as his predecessor, and likely to use many of the same strategies and tactics.

But there is only one President. He, too, is replaceable, or at least every four years. Yet during those four years, our nation invests him with enormous power, prestige and responsibility. A weak President – or a President perceived as weak – has domestic and foreign consequences that extend far beyond a war in a remote Asian nation. We can’t say for sure that Petraeus will be a better or worse commander than McChrystal (though he will certainly be more discreet). But we can that a Commander-in-Chief who meekly accepts ridicule from his generals does not deserve the title and will not command the respect that his office demands. In a world of Al Qaeda and the Iranian bomb, we can’t afford a Cuckold-in-Chief.

Generals frequently tend to be more popular than presidents. They appear stronger, more purposeful, more competent. But they have the luxury of only focusing on war, on killing the enemy or capturing ground. Presidents, whether they want to or not, must deal with the big picture.

It’s important to have good generals. We have had some poor ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we still paying the price a decade later. But whether the general’s name is McChrystal or Petraeus will make little difference. The Afghan war rests on a strategy that we have chosen for better or worse, and the ultimate bearer of responsibility for that strategy is one Barack Obama.

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    About Me

    I'm a writer in the not-so-sunny Northwest. My work has appeared in USA Today, the Washington Post, Wired.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer, National Defense and the Military Times magazines.

    I like to blog about national security and foreign affairs, though I'll write about any topic on which I have a strong opinion (which is most anything). I'm a bit of a contrarian, which drives people crazy. That's a good thing.

    Tips? Comments? Contact me at uncommondefense@gmail.com

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    Contributor Since: December 2008