Nice to See an Oscar for a Largely Pro-U.S. War Movie

College buddy Tom Streithorst is out with an article in the UK’s Prospect Magazine titled “Why The Hurt Locker shouldn’t have won,” based on Tom’s extensive experience as a journalist embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq.  Tom’s thesis is that although some aspects of the movie are outstanding, it is marred by an unrealistic portrayal of the troops.

Three scenes are absolutely wrong. In one, Sergeant James escapes his base and roams Baghdad by himself, lost and confused, looking for an Iraqi he suspects of killing a boy. No, Americans never leave the base by themselves. In the second, the soldiers wander around their base, drunk out of their minds. One of the exceptional features of the Iraq war is it is probably the first war ever fought without alcohol or drugs. And, in the last and worst, our boys have their guns aimed at an Iraqi they suspect to be a car bomber. Despite his repeatedly not obeying their orders to back up, they don’t shoot him, even though they themselves might die.

Tom left out the scene where the one sergeant sucker-punches cowboy Staff Sergeant James — his superior — after the cowboy took off his headphones.  And when the sniper team waited hours for a shot at the enemy sniper in the cinderblock pillbox, rather than calling in air support in a setting where there was no danger of civilian casualties.  I also thought the Iraqi with the time bomb locked to his body would have been dropped when he disregarded translated orders to stop walking toward the troops.

But while I agree with Tom that the bizarre roaming-around-Baghdad scene is a serious flaw, the rest of it I can chalk up to creative license.  After years of reading about tediously polemical anti-war movies set in Iraq — all of them box-office duds — I’m just glad that the first Iraq movie to gain critical acclaim avoids taking cheap political shots.  Sergeant James is reckless to the point of pathology, but he’s clearly a Good Guy.

My acid test for the quality of a movie is how much of it I remember later.  There are probably 20 scenes in Schindler’s List that I can replay in my mind after seeing the movie once, in 1993.  Hurt Locker is a lesser film, but I’ll remember James’s heart-wrenching apologies to the walking Iraqi time bomb he couldn’t save.  I also saw Avatar, the other major Best Picture contender, and while it was enjoyable enough, the main thing I remember is fiddling with the 3-D glasses.

(Photo: Everett/Rex)

Why The Hurt Locker shouldn’t have won

Newsweek Declares Victory in Iraq

… and in other news, pigs flew.  From this week’s Newsweek cover story, “Victory at Last“:

“Iraqi democracy will succeed,” President George W. Bush declared in November 2003, “and that success will send forth the news from Damascus to Tehran that freedom can be the future of every nation.” The audience at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington answered with hearty applause. Bush went on: “The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”

Bush’s rhetoric about democracy came to sound as bitterly ironic as his pumped-up appearance on an aircraft carrier a few months earlier, in front of an enormous banner that declared MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. And yet it has to be said and it should be understood—now, almost seven hellish years later—that something that looks mighty like democracy is emerging in Iraq. And while it may not be a beacon of inspiration to the region, it most certainly is a watershed event that could come to represent a whole new era in the history of the massively undemocratic Middle East.

Any recipe for defeating Islamic fascism has to include Islamic democracy as an ingredient.  Iraq could be not just Obama’s greatest accomplishment, but Bush’s as well.

Biden Was Right About Obama’s “Great Achievement”

Vice President Joe Biden has come under fire for telling Larry King last week that:

… progress in Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration.”

“You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer,” he said. “You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”

By the time I became aware of this, the pile-on had already started.  I held off on commenting because it seemed like all the interesting rhetorical gambits had already been played.

Max Boot looked on the bright side:

Some might dismiss this as chutzpah from someone who, like Barack Obama, opposed the surge needed to stabilize the situation in Iraq. But, brazen or not, it’s great to see the Obama administration taking ownership of Iraq and realizing that simply pulling out all our troops can’t be the sole goal of our policy there.

Yes, except I don’t think an unscripted comment from Biden,  a walking gaffe machine, is necessarily a reflection of the administration’s thinking.

Over at The Corner, Peter Kirsanow had the cleverest humorous take:

[T]he administration’s achievement is no more astounding than Bull Connor’s passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Kruschev’s reunification of Germany, or Jefferson Davis’s preservation of the Union.

But after thinking about it for several days, I started to realize that Biden was right.

Bear with me here, and think about the fact that after more than a year in office, the Obama administration has not screwed up what the Bush administration achieved in Iraq.  Of course, when you put it that way, it sounds kind of dismissive toward Obama.  But I assert that “not screwing up Iraq” is a non-trivial achievement — and certainly a much better outcome than many of us feared before the election.

Now compare that with the other achievements of Obama’s first year in office:

  • Health care? No.
  • Cap and trade? No.
  • Unemployment? No.

Well, he did successfully nationalize two of the Big Three automakers.   [Update: Not to mention porkulus!] Hm… what’s the opposite of an achievement?

All kidding aside, there is one arena where Obama has an opportunity for a genuinely great achievement: Afghanistan, where the administration is attempting to replicate the strategy that was so successful in Iraq.  From the New York Times:

For much of the past eight years, American and NATO forces have mounted other large military operations to clear towns and cities of Taliban insurgents. And then, almost invariably, they have cleared out, never leaving behind enough soldiers or police officers to hold the place on their own.

And so, almost always, the Taliban returned — and, after a time, so did the American and NATO troops, to clear the place all over again.

“Mowing the grass,” the soldiers and Marines derisively call it.

This time, in Marja, the largest Taliban stronghold, American and Afghan commanders say they will do something they have never done before: bring in an Afghan government and police force behind them. American and British troops will stay on to support them. “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,” said Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top American commander here.

There are no guarantees, of course — the Afghan “surge” may fail.  But if it does succeed — and as in Iraq, I define “success” in Afghanistan as a reasonably stable, reasonably self-sufficient, democratic government allied with the United States — then I’ll be happy to give Obama credit for that achievement.

Ajami, on Taking the War into the Arab World

In today’s Wall Street Journal, my old professor Fouad Ajami explains why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan both were appropriate and necessary responses to 9/11.  An excerpt:

Fouad AjamiBut it will not do to offer up 9/11 as a casus belli in Afghanistan while holding out the threat of legal retribution against the men and women in our intelligence services who carried out our wishes in that time of concern and peril. To begin with, a policy that falls back on 9/11 must proceed from a correct reading of the wellsprings of Islamist radicalism. The impulse that took America from Kabul to Baghdad had been on the mark. Those were not Afghans who had struck American soil on 9/11. They were Arabs. Their terrorism came out of the pathologies of Arab political life. Their financiers were Arabs, and so were those crowds in Cairo and Nablus and Amman that had winked at the terror and had seen those attacks as America getting its comeuppance on that terrible day. Kabul had not sufficed as a return address in that twilight war; it was important to take the war into the Arab world itself, and the despot in Baghdad had drawn the short straw. He had been brazen and defiant at a time of genuine American concern, and a lesson was made of him.

There was never any doubt that we would strike back at Afghanistan — precisely one member of Congress voted against the authorization for use of force.  President Gore or President Kerry would have toppled the Taliban.  There was really no choice.

President Bush, to his enduring credit, knew that we had to do more than just Afghanistan.  After years of mismanaging the Iraq war, Bush finally found a general and a strategy to turn the war around.

Now some of the same voices who urged surrender and rooted for defeat in Iraq are going wobbly on Afghanistan.  President Obama, who seized hold of the “good war” as a club to batter Bush’s “bad war,” has little choice other than to give the strategy that succeeded in Iraq a chance to succeed in Afghanistan.

George Will Bails Out on Another War

George WillYou’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land where left is right and hawk is dove.  Next stop… the George Will Zone.

Columnist George Will, whom I generally admire, seems intent on undermining America’s war effort.  He set the rightosphere atwitter this week with a column headlined “Time to Get Out of Afganistan,” becoming the first major conservative to advocate surrender in the one war President Obama has expressed interest in winning.

He’s making a habit of prematurely declaring defeat — he wrote “the surge has failed” in September 2007, just when it was starting to show tentative signs of success.

As an antidote to Will’s nay-saying, the Wall Street Journal today published a much more hopeful assessment from Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel, who note:

Democracies sometimes talk themselves out of keeping up the faith in tough situations, and we should avoid any such tendency towards defeatism, especially so early in the execution of the Obama administration’s new military/civilian/economic strategy, which combines stronger and more widespread counterinsurgency measures with increased nation-building efforts.

Rich Lowry has been good on this as well, taking issue with Will’s fantasy about fighting the war from offshore:

This counter-terrorism from afar is very dicey business. What would our sources of intelligence be if we don’t have a substantial presence on the ground? Remember: The further away you are, the better your intelligence has to be because you have a longer lead time until you can strike. This is why we kept hitting empty terrorist training camps with cruise missiles in the 1990s.

The strategy that so clearly has worked in Iraq deserves an opportunity to succeed in Afghanistan as well.  I hope that President Obama, who seemed to latch onto the Afghanistan war as a way of proving that he’s not a doctrinaire pacifist, can withstand increasing pressure from his left.  (George Will notwithstanding, I don’t think he’ll face a lot of pressure from the right.)

God Knows: An IED in Iraq Shows Who, How, and Why We Fight

IED_detonator 400The Web Goddess, who truly is a Renaissance Woman, is fascinated by neurology. She hungrily devours any book or article for general audiences about how the brain and central nervous system work.

If you share that interest at all, I highly recommend the story she flagged for me this morning, which was in yesterday’s New York Times Science section.

I find the story gripping for an entirely different reason, about which more to come.

It turns out that when it comes to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), fancy American technology is great, but there’s no substitute for the instincts of (certain) American soldiers.

[H]igh-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all — the human brain. Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible for foiling many I.E.D. attacks, and, like Sergeant Tierney, they often cite a gut feeling or a hunch as their first clue.

Everyone has hunches — about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others’ do.

“Sergeant Tierney” refers to a soldier who saved the life of a comrade one summer morning by sensing that something was wrong on a nearly deserted street in Mosul.  The article opens with a scene-setter about a soldier under Tierney’s command who sought permission to give some water to two Iraqi kids in a closed car on a 120-degree day.

The 2,100-word article makes you wait to the very end to learn what happened, but you can guess the outcome.  Sergeant Tierney denied permission for the humanitarian gesture — and when the soldier turned around to fall back, the car was exploded remotely.  The unidentified soldier suffered only minor injuries — but the two young Iraqi boys, of course, suffered the fate their elders intended.

Sort of puts waterboarding a known mass murderer into perspective, doesn’t it?

My point here (and I don’t necessarily speak for the Web Goddess) is not to advocate waterboarding, a practice I oppose.  To paraphrase a recent American president, my point is that good and evil both exist in the world — and the God of my understanding is not neutral between them.

That’s right: I believe God is on our side, in a war against an enemy that has perverted a major global religion.

America is not perfect.  Americans are not perfect.  But to quote an unsuccessful recent presidential candidate (who also opposes waterboarding), “America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world.”  I would tack on: “this side of the Almighty.”

Some will argue that a belief in God’s blessing is exactly the kind of self-justifying mindset that leads to excesses like waterboarding.  I think the opposite is true.

Our society has a passionate yearning for God’s approval (or for my secular friends, a yearning to be Good).  That yearning leads us to wrenching but necessary national debates about the precise point where interrogation goes too far — while our enemies deliberately murder two young co-religionists in an effort to take advantage of our humanitarian instinct.

Never forget.

(Public domain photo of IED detonator from Wikimedia Commons)

Obama Pays for Gates-gate in the Rasmussen Poll

obama_index_july_26_2009President Obama has slipped to the worst rating of his young presidency in the daily Rasmussen Presidential Tracking Poll, weighing in at -11 points.  That’s based on likely voters with strong opinions.  He fares better when you look at total approvers vs. total disapprovers — although for the first time, or at least the first time I’ve noticed, he’s in slightly negative territory there as well, with 49% at least somewhat approving of his performance and 50% disapproving.

As soon as I saw that strong uptick in the red strongly-disapprove line above, I knew it had to be a result of Gates-gate, and Rasmussen confirms that.  It’s unfortunate that Obama chose to squander some of his post-racial cred by meddling in an ambiguous incident in a town with a black police commissioner and a black mayor, in a state with a black governor, in a country with a black president.

BTW, I would not show up on Rasmussen’s tracking poll, because I would tell the pollster that I “somewhat disapprove.”  Foreign policy is key for me in evaluating a president, and I give Obama positive marks for continuing President Bush’s policies on Iraq and Afghanistan. (Iran, not so much, although he eventually decided which side to back.) But I’m opposed to pretty much everything he’s trying to do domestically.

Don’t Overlook the Good News in Iraq

Iraq soldierIn the midst of Bernie Madoff, Governor Sanford, cap-and-tax, unrest in Iran and the continuing deceasement of MJ, take a moment to note a happy milestone: The orderly, scheduled withdrawal today of American troops from major cities in Iraq, turning over primary responsibility to the Iraqi security forces.

Here’s Ralph Peters today in  the New York Post:

The “cradle of civilization” is rising from the grave again.

Yes, sectarianism, old grievances and the greed for power may deliver future crises — even an eventual civil war. An unnatural state with grossly flawed borders, Iraq has more obstacles to overcome than any of its neighbors except Lebanon.

But our achievement remains profound: We gave one key Arab state a chance at freedom and democracy. We deposed a monstrous dictator who butchered his own people and invaded two foreign countries. And we didn’t quit, despite the scorn of the global intelligentsia.

Update: Peter Wehner has a similar, more detailed take at Commentary.  His conclusion:

The ultimate wisdom in initiating the Iraq war is still to be validated by contingent events still to unfold. What is happening today is a transition, not a final triumph. And while Iraq is today a legitimate, representative, and responsible democracy, it remains fragile. Hard-earned progress can still be undone. The Iraqi military will have to prove it can provide security to its citizens. Relations between the Iraqi government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in the north, particularly over the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, are tense. None of us can foretell the future, and almost all of us have been wrong about some aspect of the war or another.

Still, it is worth pointing out that those who wrote off the war as unwinnable and a miserable failure, who made confident, sweeping arguments that have been overturned by events, and who had grown so weary of the conflict that they were willing to consign Iraqis to mass slaughters and America to a historically consequential defeat — they were thankfully, blessedly wrong. And the Land between the Rivers, which has known too much tyranny and too many tears, may yet bind up its wounds.

(Photo of Iraqi soldier by AP)

OK, Let’s Have A Fact-Finding Commission On Torture

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it?

The Washington Post offers the best argument I’ve seen for a bipartisan commission into the use of torture, or “torture” if you prefer, by Americans during the Bush Administration.  The editorial ends with this (emphasis added):

But a presidential commission could produce the fullest, least-heated account possible.

Once it did so, prosecutions would not be the only option. Based on what we know today, we do not believe they would be the best option. For reasons laid out at the beginning of this editorial, we would be extremely reluctant to go after lawyers and officials acting in what they believed to be the nation’s best interest at a time of grave danger. If laws were broken, Congress or the president can opt for amnesty. In gray areas, the government can exercise prosecutorial discretion. But the work of the commission should not be prejudged. And the prudence of not prosecuting, if that proves the wisest course, would earn more respect, here and abroad, if it followed a process of thorough review and calm deliberation.

And here are some of the “reasons laid out at the beginning of this editorial:

On one side, you have the sacred American tradition of peacefully transferring power from one party to another every four or eight years without cycles of revenge and criminal investigation. It’s one thing to investigate Richard Nixon for authorizing wiretaps and burglaries in secrecy, outside the normal channels of government, for personal political gain. It’s another to criminalize decisions authorized through all the proper channels, with congressional approval or at least awareness, for what everyone agrees to be the high purpose of keeping Americans safe from terrorist attack. Once you start down that road, where do you stop? Should Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger and their team have been held criminally or civilly liable for dereliction of duty 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, given that they knowingly allowed Osama bin Laden to flee Sudan for sanctuary in Afghanistan? What if the next administration believes that Barack Obama is committing war crimes every time he allows the Air Force to fling missiles into Pakistan, killing innocent civilians in a country with which we are not at war?

In an Oval Office press availability after meeting with the king of Jordan last week, Obama said:

… this has been a difficult chapter in our history, and one of the tougher decisions that I’ve had to make as President. On the one hand, we have very real enemies out there. And we rely on some very courageous people, not just in our military but also in the Central Intelligence Agency, to help protect the American people. And they have to make some very difficult decisions because, as I mentioned yesterday, they are confronted with an enemy that doesn’t have scruples, that isn’t constrained by constitutions, aren’t constrained by legal niceties.

Having said that, the OLC memos that were released reflected, in my view, us losing our moral bearings.

Hawk though I am, Obama’s statements here work for me.  I voted for Bush in 2004, and would do so again today if he were running against Kerry.  Because of widespread Bush Derangement Syndrome in the media and the Democratic Party, my instinct is to defend Bush against almost any attack, at least in his role as commander-in-chief.

But regarding the torture issue, all I can say is I hope they saved a lot of American lives with whatever information they waterboarded out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and whoever else, because the ramifications are going to continue for years. I’ve thought for some time that the best spin I can put on it is to say that “America” — I’ll not blame Bush alone, although it happened on his watch — abandoned the moral high ground on the issue of torture.  We should reclaim the moral high ground, and a fact-finding commission may be the best way to start.

Update: From this morning’s WaPo, a news article with a fairly balanced cost-benefit analysis of the torture/harsh interrogation program.  This part rings true to me:

The Obama administration’s top intelligence officer, Dennis C. Blair, has said the information obtained through the interrogation program was of “high value.” But he also concluded that those gains weren’t worth the cost.

“There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Blair said in a statement. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

Slouching Towards Europe: Obama’s Domestic Agenda Undercuts American Exceptionalism

obama-flagI’ve been pleasantly surprised by President Obama’s steadfastness regarding national security issues.  After winning his party’s nomination by promising to surrender in Iraq more quickly than the other Democrats would, Obama has:

  • retained his predecessor’s defense secretary;
  • adopted his predecessor’s timetable for responsible disengagement in Iraq;
  • supported his own rhetoric about the importance of Afghanistan by sending more troops; and
  • continued, as recently as Saturday, his predecessor’s policy of pilotless drone missile strikes at Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in Pakistan.

Credit where credit is due: Thank you, President Obama.

But in the long run, America’s national security depends as much on our economy as it does on our military prowess. And on that score, my Obama-inspired surprises have been less pleasant.

Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma sums it up:

I believe President Obama has proposed the most significant shift toward collectivism and away from capitalism in the history of our republic. I believe his budget aspires to not merely promote economic recovery but to lay the groundwork for sweeping expansions of government authority in areas like health care, energy and even daily commerce. If handled poorly, I’m concerned this budget could turn our government into the world’s largest health care provider, mortgage bank or car dealership, among other things.

In short, the goal seems to be to make America more like Europe.  And while there is much to admire in Europe’s history, to emulate the Europe of today is to risk compromising the self-sufficiency and sense of personal empowerment that have made America the strongest country in the world, both militarily and economically.  Charles Murray:

If we ask what are the institutions through which human beings achieve deep satisfactions in life, the answer is that there are just four: family, community, vocation, and faith. Two clarifications: “Community” can embrace people who are scattered geographically. “Vocation” can include avocations or causes. …

Seen in this light, the goal of social policy is to ensure that those institutions are robust and vital. And that’s what’s wrong with the European model. It doesn’t do that. It enfeebles every single one of them. …

The problem is this: Every time the government takes some of the trouble out of performing the functions of family, community, vocation, and faith, it also strips those institutions of some of their vitality–it drains some of the life from them. It’s inevitable. Families are not vital because the day-to-day tasks of raising children and being a good spouse are so much fun, but because the family has responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the family does them. Communities are not vital because it’s so much fun to respond to our neighbors’ needs, but because the community has the responsibility for doing important things that won’t get done unless the community does them. Once that imperative has been met–family and community really do have the action–then an elaborate web of social norms, expectations, rewards, and punishments evolves over time that supports families and communities in performing their functions. When the government says it will take some of the trouble out of doing the things that families and communities evolved to do, it inevitably takes some of the action away from families and communities, and the web frays, and eventually disintegrates.

Murray’s lengthy speech is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s another key excerpt:

American exceptionalism is not just something that Americans claim for themselves. Historically, Americans have been different as a people, even peculiar, and everyone around the world has recognized it. I’m thinking of qualities such as American optimism even when there doesn’t seem to be any good reason for it. That’s quite uncommon among the peoples of the world. There is the striking lack of class envy in America–by and large, Americans celebrate others’ success instead of resenting it. That’s just about unique, certainly compared to European countries, and something that drives European intellectuals crazy. And then there is perhaps the most important symptom of all, the signature of American exceptionalism–the assumption by most Americans that they are in control of their own destinies. It is hard to think of a more inspiriting quality for a population to possess, and the American population still possesses it to an astonishing degree. No other country comes close. …

The exceptionalism has not been a figment of anyone’s imagination, and it has been wonderful. But it isn’t something in the water that has made us that way. It comes from the cultural capital generated by the system that the Founders laid down, a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government’s job to stage-manage how people interact with each other. Discard the system that created the cultural capital, and the qualities we love about Americans can go away. In some circles, they are going away.

Some level of increased government intervention is necessary to avoid catastrophic damage to the global economy.  But the Obama administration, having decided not to let a good crisis go to waste, has set off on a course that will vastly increase the scope of government power.  This needs to be resisted.