Saturday, April 03, 2004

"I come to bury Caesar, not praise him..." Mercs or civs?

This memorable phrase comes from the play "Julius Caesar", by William Shakespeare. Apparently, calling the four combatants who died in Fallujah the name of "mercanaries" is in several places causing some ire. Some like Kos have shown no human decency toward the shocking deaths, of the individuals and have been criticized fairly by others like Katzman. When Newman used the same word, he was also criticized - this time by his own posters.

Full disclosure: I've exchanged email with Newman recently and he's apparently banned my handle from posting to his blog. Let it not be said that the oldman fails to be evenhanded whether others are nice to him or not.

Refusing to call the combatants - apparently everyone agrees they were armed and US citizens - mercenaries simply because of an abstract definition that says they can't be mercenaries if they were also US citizens in a warzone the US is participating is absurd. However, if one called anyone taking pay to fight a merc then all our soldiers would be mercs and that wouldn't be right.

A mercenary then should not only take money for pay, but fight out of personal reasons instead of duty. By that measure, Nathan would be within his rights to call these people mercenaries. The better term would probably be simply security guard however, since I wouldn't call the guy who protects my bank a mercenary. To be a mercenary implies waging some sort of offensive operations. Bodyguards however are ubiquitous the world round.

Personally, the oldman would prefer to call them soldiers if for no other reason that they were (somewhat expensively) performing routine operations as an extension of our military policies and operations there as directed and financed by the Pentagon. The fact that Rumsfeld in one of his weird privatization schemes thinks he can save money by paying a company to hire these guys at +$100k yearly a pop in order to do the same job that a recruit would do for less than $15k a year (including housing allowance, etc.) is just another weird neocon idea. The realcon in me wants to call these men soldiers, since that's what the job they were doing was.

However, Nathan is under no obligation to do so. These men were not wearing uniforms of our country, they were not bound by duty or oaths or military standards of conduct. The military can't have it both ways. Either they were not in the military chain of command, and therefore were non-military combatants or they were and cannot be referred to as simple citizens as the military has done since the incident in Fallujah. So Nathan owes them no deference, and no gratitude. Freedom may not be free, but it is paid for in the blood of patriots and not the pay scales of for-hire warriors. They knew what they were doing, and were there by choice, and I would hardly say out of love or ideals as a person working for a NGO might claim or a private mission of mercy could invoke.

Personally I would recommend to Kos and Nathan that they show a little more human empathy. The sacrifice of these people was no less costly to them or their families in human terms than a soldier's deaths - that's why they call it the ultimate sacrifice. However, other than human sympathy we owe them no special deference. Personally, I would direct my ire to whoever thought it was a brilliant idea to drive a four vehicle convoy down the middle of downtown Fallujah. In a poignant human touch, apparently two out of the four killed were in a second car that turned back to help the first car that had gotten into trouble when they themselves perished by driving back into the ambush. I personally think that this as a moment of personal courage deserves a special mention and meritious regard. Risking your life to save someone else, under any circumstances, is a brave and laudable act even if perhaps foolhardy.

Part of what disturbs me however is that the war-adled seem willing to praise soldiers once they are safely dead and buried. Disgustingly, the bodies hadn't even been recovered when military officials were rushing to put words in the dead victim's mouths by saying that the victims would say themselves that the conflict was "worth it". That was a particularly disgusting piece of war propaganda, while the charred dismembered bodies were still swaying in the wind above Fallujah's streets.

Apparently as the Independent_uk reports the military has no trouble bullying wounded and shell-shocked soldiers into going back to the front in order to meet their manpower requirements.

***
By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
03 April 2004


Just ten days ago, Jason Gunn didn't think he was in any shape to be sent back to active duty in Iraq.

That's what the 24-year-old tank driver told his family, and what he told the commanders at his US military base in Germany. It is also what he told a team of psychiatrists at Heidelberg Hospital, who not only agreed with his assessment but issued a formal recommendation that he be kept with them for further treatment.

Back in November, Specialist Gunn had suffered devastating injuries up and down the left side of his body when a roadside bomb obliterated the Humvee he was driving on the north side of Baghdad. Over and above his physical wounds, he also had to deal with the trauma of the sergeant in the seat behind his being ripped to shreds in the explosion.

Soon he was displaying classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, (PTSD) - anxiety, insomnia interspersed with recurring nightmares, and extreme agitation. Army doctors put him on two different medications to lift his mood and suppress his bad dreams. But the gung-ho, happy-go-lucky, overtly fearless soldier who had existed before last November obstinately refused to resurface.

It used to be accepted practice in the US military not to return a soldier to active duty unless he was fully fit - not just out of consideration for his own needs, but also to protect other members of his unit. In Iraq, however, growing anecdotal evidence suggests that a new policy is emerging - to patch up the wounded as quickly as possible and ship them straight back, threatening them with disciplinary action or even court martial if they show the slightest reluctance.

That, according to the available evidence, is what happened to Jason Gunn. On 23 March, he telephoned his mother in Philadelphia and told her he would refuse to go back to Iraq even if they ordered him to. The very next day, however, he was on a plane to Kuwait, and from there was told to make his own way back to his unit with the 1st Armored Division in Baghdad.

Three days later, his family was shown a signed statement which seemed to contradict everything they knew about him. "It is my wish," the statement said, "to be redeployed with my unit to finish my tour of duty with my unit here in Iraq. I feel that I am able to complete my mission here as well as any other duties assigned to me while on current deployment."

The statement also said he had not been on prescribed medicines since early March - even though his mother believes he had been taking his two sets of pills right up to the time of his departure - and that he did not feel he was in need of "any type of counselling at this time".

It wasn't just his family who found that odd. It was also a flat contradiction of an earlier statement issued by his commanders in Landstuhl on the day of his departure, which acknowledged he was unwilling to return to Iraq and that he had been diagnosed with PTSD by the Heidelberg doctors.

So what happened? His mother, Pat Gunn, herself a military veteran, is in no doubt he was put under severe duress. "My fear," she said in an interview, "is that he was coerced or shamed into signing this statement, just as he was coerced or shamed into returning to Iraq ... .

"When I spoke to him the night before he left, he was adamant he was not going back. They did a lot to his psyche to get him on that plane."

The only contact Pat Gunn has had since his return to the Middle East was a single, very brief phone call from Kuwait to say he had arrived safely. Since then, there has been nothing, despite efforts by her and by the office of the powerful New York congressman Charles Rangel to find out what happened.

When a staffer for Mr Rangel called a military liaison officer this week, she was told that if Jason had not contacted his mother that was his choice and there was nothing they could do to force him.

According to Mrs Gunn, Jason was called a coward from the moment he returned to Landstuhl in early January - even though, just a few months earlier, he had been mentioned in dispatches when he rushed into the smoking ruins of the bombed United Nations headquarters in Baghdad to pull out the dead and wounded.

The statement issued by Jason's superiors in Germany, meanwhile, made clear that they had made a decision simply to ignore the medical advice from Heidelberg. They even said it "may be in his best interest mentally to overcome his fear by facing it".

That line of argument does not wash with most credible experts on PTSD, who say that sending a traumatised soldier back into combat is actually the very worst thing one can do. Steve Robinson, executive director of the Gulf War Veterans Resource Centre in Maryland who has worked extensively with PTSD victims, called the reasoning "patently false".

"The best cure for PTSD is to pull a soldier back to a safe place and deal with the traumatic event that occurred," he said. "I can figure out about 100 better ways of overcoming a psychological injury than re-exposing the victim to his trauma. Remember, they used to put electrodes on people's head and shock 'em. They found out that wasn't such a good idea either."

Despite the growing scientific understanding of PTSD, case histories collected by Mr Robinson and others suggest combat stress victims are being sent back with growing frequency, and in some cases being subjected to humiliation, abuse and intimidation.

Late last year, an army translator called Georg-Andreas Pogany who had a violent reaction to the sight of a mutilated corpse was briefly charged with cowardice, a military crime punishable by death, and paraded across the national media as a disgrace to his country. Both the cowardice charge, and a lesser one of dereliction of duty, have since been dropped, apparently for lack of evidence.

Mr Robinson said he knew of an injured soldier evacuated from Iraq who became so exasperated at the lack of medical care offered by the military that he decided to pay for his own private treatment. That led to a charge of being absent without leave, as a result of which the soldier had a psychological breakdown and tried to kill himself. Rather than show any sympathy, Mr Robinson said his superiors tracked him down and sent him back to Iraq.

Similar cases have been collected by the group Military Families Speak , (MFSO), which represents US soldiers and their families who oppose the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Nancy Lessin, MFSO's co-founder, said she knew of several traumatised soldiers who had attempted suicide, either while recuperating or after they had been sent back.

"Jason Gunn is not an isolated case. The only thing unique about him is that the family is willing to speak out publicly," she said. "We see this as the tip of the iceberg. We are seeing for the first time the military laying out their strategy in writing - to send victims of PTSD back into battle, back to the front. This is how they are dealing with a situation where they are in over their heads without a plan in a war that should never have happened. The attitude is: as long as you can breathe, you can be redeployed."

While the individual stories are necessarily anecdotal, the big picture - of plummeting morale and record numbers of soldiers taking their own lives - is not since it has been documented by the Pentagon.

Last week, a much-delayed official report showed that the suicide rate in the military was higher now than it had been during Vietnam or since, with at least 23 soldiers committing suicide in Iraq last year and another seven killing themselves back home.

A survey by an Army mental health advisory team also found 52 per cent of troops in Iraq reporting low or very low personal morale, and 72 per cent complaining of low or very low unit morale.

A wide range of critics - including John Kerry, the Democratic presidential challenger, and General Eric Shinseki, the recently departed army chief of staff - have charged that too few soldiers are being deployed in Iraq to carry out the ambitious tasks being asked of them.

***

I have great sympathy for our soldiers, but my care is for the live ones too. 'Bring our boys home' is a strong sentiment I feel, and I curse the government mismanagement that would make such a withdrawal a totem of defeat and shame and national cowardice. It didn't have to happen this way. Do we complain about the troop deaths in the Panama occupation? Well that's because we didn't bother to have a lengthy occupation for our last major unilateral illegal invasion to topple a dictator. There's a way to do this kind of thing right, and there's a way to mess it all up. The failure of the Bush Administration (via Emptydays) in the latter along with their obstinate refusal to admit or correct mistakes, and their all too willingness to spend other people's blood in order to whitewash their mistakes is one reason why I've so thoroughly turned against the party that held my loyalty.

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