Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Six More US Soldiers Die in Afghanistan

The top story in the NYTimes online at this hour is the loss of six more US soldiers in Afghanistan, killed when a van loaded with explosives blew up at an outpost manned by US/NATO and Afghan troops. Many Afghan and US soldiers were wounded in the attack, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility. Read the news here, and get the Times if you want more. 

This week, I finished reading “The Good Soldiers,” David Finkel’s riveting account of one battalion of US soldiers during the “surge” in Iraq in 2007-08. Finkel’s eyewitness reporting on the brutal day-to-day conditions in Iraq is one of the best books about war that I’ve read. The word that comes up when I want to talk about the book is “carnage.” The horrific killings, woundings, and torturings of Americans, Iraqis, and others would seem to be something out of the Middle Ages or First World War (which this blog has been chronicling). Finkel shows us the staggering disconnect between the crazed clerics and eager politicians driving the rhetoric from the top and the individuals on the ground who pay with their lives and livelihoods. The psychological damage all around is immense. Someone said “the real impact of the war in Iraq hasn’t been felt yet.” That’s something to worry about.

President Obama at Work

“All the President’s Men” is one of my favorite movies, and I believe the dynamic duo of “Woodstein” should be remembered with a statue on the mall in Washington, DC, some day, but I’m not a fan of the Washington insider books that Bob Woodward has been churning out for many years. Still, I bought “Obama’s Wars” a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to learn more about how President Obama works on the staggeringly complex issues that define his presidency. This book claims to be the inside story of the White House decisions on war policy from the post-election period in 2008 through mid-2010, when he fired Gen. McChrystal after the insubordinate comments by military leaders in Afghanistan made to a Rolling Stone reporter.

Agree or not with the policy on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, anyone reading this book with an open mind has to admit that Barack Obama is the kind of intelligent, thoughtful, determined person who should be elected president on a regular basis. The deliberations on the direction of the ”AfPak” policy are painstakingly chronicled by Woodward—maybe in too much detail, but he has the inside information so he uses it. When the president finally settled on the “terms sheet” for Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy in November 2009, here’s how Gen. David Petraeus reacted:

“Petraeus had privately concluded that the terms sheet, though a little heavy-handed, was not just to get clarity, but to show the president was in control. When he later learned that the president had personally dictated the orders, he couldn’t believe it. ‘There’s not a president in history that’s dictated five single-spaced pages in his life. That’s what the staff gets paid to do.’”

Kristof Praises ’9/11 Healers’

In today’s NYTimes, columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes about Susan Retik and Patricia (Fleming) Quigley, who co-founded Beyond the 11th after their husbands were killed in the 9/11 attacks as a way to reach out to women in Afghanistan who, like them, lost their husbands in violent incidents. Patti (Fleming) Quigley is from Lowell.  Read the column here, and get the NYT if you appreciate the writing.

Rich Rants, But Praises UML-Bound Andrew Bacevich of B.U.

What to say about political and cultural commentator Frank Rich in today’s NYT? He’s on a tear against Left, Right, and Center. The only satisfaction he finds in our messed up world today is Jonathan Franzen’s new and already-blockbuster novel “Freedom,” which Rich says nails the psyche of the time like “The Great Gatsby” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” did with theirs.

The heady intoxication of freedom is everywhere in “Freedom,” from extramarital sexual couplings to the consumer nirvana of the iPod to Operation Iraqi Freedom itself. Yet most everyone, regardless of age or calling or politics, is at war — not with terrorists, but with depression, with their consciences and with one another.

I haven’t read ”Freedom” yet, but I took a second look at it in the window of Barnes and Noble on Merrimack Street. The reviews I’ve read have been figurative standing ovations. I had just been in there buying Jane Brox’s latest, “Brilliant,” so I let Franzen wait there until I finish Jane’s book.

Rich has high praise for the blunt clarity of Andrew J. Bacevich’s  analysis of what went wrong in the two wars of the “9/11 decade,” as Rich frames it. Here’s what he wrote about Bacevich:

Of all the commentators on the debacle, few speak with more eloquence or credibility than Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University who as a West Point-trained officer served in Vietnam and the first gulf war and whose son, also an Army officer, was killed in Iraq in 2007. Writing in The New Republic after Obama’s speech, he decimated many of the war’s lingering myths, starting with the fallacy, reignited by the hawks taking a preposterous victory lap last week, that “the surge” did anything other than stanch the bleeding from the catastrophic American blundering that preceded it. As Bacevich concluded: “The surge, now remembered as an epic feat of arms, functions chiefly as a smokescreen, obscuring a vast panorama of recklessness, miscalculation and waste that politicians, generals, and sundry warmongers are keen to forget.”

Bacevich also wrote that “common decency demands that we reflect on all that has occurred in bringing us to this moment.” Americans’ common future demands it too. The war’s corrosive effect on the home front is no less egregious than its undermining of our image and national security interests abroad. As the Pentagon rebrands Operation Iraqi Freedom as Operation New Dawn — a “name suggesting a skin cream or dishwashing liquid,” Bacevich aptly writes — the whitewashing of our recent history is well under way. The price will be to keep repeating it.

Prof. Andrew Bacevich, Boston University (web photo courtesy bu.edu)

If you would like to hear more from Bacevich in person, he will be the featured speaker in political science Prof. Jeff Gerson’s annual 9/11 speaker series at UMass Lowell on Friday, Sept. 17, at 12 noon in the O’Leary Library auditorium, Room 222, at 61 Wilder Street on the South Campus. Visitor parking is available in the lot on Wilder Street. For more information, contact jeffrey_gerson@uml.edu

Read Frank Rich here, and get the Times if you appreciate the writing and thinking and attitude.

Book Review: ‘The Forever War’ by Dexter Filkins

I’m not the first to say this is a powerful book. Filkins won awards from the National Book Critics Circle and NYTimes Book Review. It was a best-seller in hardcover. I lent my first copy to someone, and it went into the book-loan twilight zone, which is why I bought the paperback about a month ago. I recalled being so impressed upon reading it the first time. I hadn’t read such gripping prose about war since reading Michael Herr’s “Dispatches” about the Vietnam War in the ’70s. I went back to the book for more than the literary kicks, though. Filkins’ eyewitness accounts of Afghanistan in the run-up to 9/11 and the early years of the Iraq war provide helpful perspective to the daily news reports from the war zones and political rehashing of policy decisions in the past ten years.

Filkins manages to put the humanity up front in his bursts of nearly real-time reporting. He worked from a stack of hundreds of notebooks that he’d filled on the run, while taking cover, and literarally under covers in some instances when he had to write with the flashlight hidden. He doesn’t appear to spare any detail, no matter how gruesome, in conveying the raw barbarism of war-fighting and what it does to the killers and casualties. He tracks a couple of the family stories back to the U.S. and puts a face on the homefront as well. There’s no neat conclusion at the end because the fighting goes on (“The Forever War”) even though he exits the battlefield. I heard he’d recently gone back to do more reporting. The book is structured as a collection of scenes really, like a slightly disjoint documentary film. Some of the chapters are only a few pages long. One reviewer described the book as a “kaliedoscope of images and intensity.” Most of all, I recommend the book for what the reader will learn about the people and culture of those nations where the United States and many other countries have been engaged in a bloody and mind-bendingly complicated fight against adversaries whose eyes see a different world than ours do.

Dexter Filkins (web photo courtesy NYT)

Who Gets Hurt?

Writing for TIME, Joe Klein offered up a sober assessment of President Obama’s speech  to the disabled vets a few days ago that marked the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq by our country. You can read the August 2 blog post here. It’s not unusual for a writer to have an idea he or she wants to write about, but cannot find a way in to the subject. Klein’s blogging, as well as this past week’s TIME magazine cover with the young Afghan woman, Bibi Aisha, whose nose had been sliced off by her husband, opened a path into something I’ve been thinking about for more than a month.

On Sunday, July 4, I saved the front page of the New York Times. It’s been folded and sitting on my desk since then. The lead photograph, above the fold, is of 23-year-old Brendan Marrocco of Staten Island, N.Y., at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He’s in a rehabilitation room with a medical aide helping him with an artificial leg. On Easter Sunday, 2009, in Iraq, Brendan was riding in a vehicle that was blown up by a roadside bomb. According to the Times, “he became the first veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to lose all four limbs in combat and survive.” He has four artificial limbs, but is hoping for a double arm transplant, “a rare and risky procedure.” He has a a brother who is with him almost constantly and a girlfriend.

When I saw the image of Brendan, I immediately thought of another photograph that I will never forget. When the war in Iraq began the media published a picture of a boy whose two arms had been amputated after being horrifically burned during the bombardment of Baghdad. I had to search the web for details. Twelve days into the official start of the war in March 2003, 12-year-old Ali Abbas was maimed when what has been described as either a “stray American bomb” (CBS News) or “a coalition missile attack” (BBC) wiped out 16 members of his immediate and extended family, including his parents, at the family home outside Baghdad. Ali Abbas survived and, according to the most recent report I could find (2007),now lives in England. Donations that flooded in after his photo was seen around the world were used for medical procedures, rehabilitation, and schooling. In an interview in 2007, he said “I still remember my family and I still blame the person who bombed my house.  Because when he bombed the house there weren’t any soldiers or weapons. We were farmers; we had cows and sheep. There’s no reason that [the bombing] should have happened.” Remarkably, he grew to be a teenager who learned to use his feet as hands (he has artificial arms) for everything from brushing his teeth to painting pictures of flowers. He rides a three-wheel bike that he steers with his shoulders. When he’s older, he says he’d like to do some kind of work involving efforts to make peace.

Bibi Aisha is the new “Afghan girl”—a heart-wrenching counterpart to the famous National Geographic magazine cover photograph of a stunningly beautiful young woman that is one of the iconic portraits of the past 30 years. Her story of abuse at the hands of a husband from the Taliban is difficult to hear and read. The violence, unfortunately, is not off the charts. It’s in the culture of the place. There’s hope for her with facial reconstruction surgery. Her visibility has drawn attention and support, however, there are other girls and boys and women and men whom we will never hear about.

We are approaching the ninth anniversary of 9/11. It seems beyond the capacity of any one of us to comprehend the scale of death and destruction that have resulted from that day. And atrocities such as the one involving Bibi Aisha aren’t tied to 9/11;  we know about them because we are hearing more about Afghanistan. This week President Obama presented a medal to Susan Retik, who, with Patricia Fleming Quigley of the Lowell Flemings, founded “Beyond the 11th,” after losing their husbands in the 9/11 attacks, to reach out to and help Afghan widows. The late Patrick Quigley’s name is carved into the UMass Lowell 9/11 memorial along the Riverwalk near the hydro-electric plant off Pawtucket Street.

The people mentioned here have paid a huge price. They are alive, but scarred physically and psychologically. Why? Because of conflicts rooted in religious differences, political power struggles, and competition for resources and riches. They didn’t ask for trouble, but trouble found them. I was looking for a way in to this post when I wanted to write about Brendan Marrocco. Now I’m wondering if there is a way out.

T. Friedman Lays Out His Hand

Columnist and “talking head” Thomas L. Friedman of the NYT has his fans and his detractors; he turned off a lot of people with his support for the Iraq invasion. The current mess in Afghanistan can be traced in large measure to the bad decision to start a second war in Iraq in 2003.  He doesn’t have much credibility regarding defense policy. But Friedman has been consistent in his push for greener energy policies for what they will give the U.S. economically and politically. He’s the guy who a few years ago wrote “Make them fight all of us.” In his blunt analysis of the Af-Pak situation today, he writes:

And we should diminish our dependence on oil so we are less impacted by what happens in Saudi Arabia, so we shrink the funds going to people who hate us and we make economic and political reform a necessity for them, not a hobby.

Read his whole column here, and consider subscribing to the NYT if you appreciate his opinions.

From the Maddow Blog: ‘Me as Michael Dukakis’

I couldn’t resist the urge – this photo of  Rachel Maddow – fellow resident of Massachusetts – not  ”in mufti” needs to be seen as “captioned.”  Maddow with her crew and NBC correspondent Richard Engel is  currently in Afghanistan where she will spend the next couple of days reporting in and from the field. The Rachel Maddow Show seen nightly on MSNBC at 9:00pm will be coming to her audience live from Kabul on Tuesday and Wednesday. I admit it –  I’m a fan.