The Mighty Pen

It’s been said that the pen is mightier than the sword. While I don’t know how true that is, here’s a chance to do something truly worthwhile. Courtesy of the mighty Atrios:

As many of you know, I am currently in the apolitical position of Army public affairs specialist in Afghanistan. I only recently arrived, after waiting for 2.5 months at Ft. Riley, Kansas, but that’s another issue. I’m writing you all today because I’m going to take many of you up on your offers and rudely ask a favor of those who made no offer.

When I first mentioned on my blog, Nitpicker, that I was going to be deployed, a large number of you asked how you could help me, what I would need for Afghanistan. The truth is, there’s not much. However, I just went on my first mission with a civil affairs group and found a way you might be able to help me out.

It seems that the children of Afghanistan want nothing more than they want a pen.

It was explained to me that the villages through which I traveled (near Kandahar, where I’m based) are so poor that a pen is like a scholarship to these children. They desperately want to learn but, without a pen, they simply won’t. It’s a long story. I won’t bore you with it. Trust me, though, when I say that it would be a big deal if even a few of you could put up the call for pens for me. Anyone interested in helping out could either send some directly to me or go to these sites and send them, where you can find them for as cheap as $.89 a dozen.

You can send them to me at this address:

Terry L. Welch
105th MPAD
Kandahar Public Affairs Office
APO AE 09355

Go ahead and spend a few bucks–it’s for a good cause. Gestures like this go light years further towards our goal of winning the war against terror than the biggest bomb. I’ve had first-hand experience with this. When I was in Iraq, the easiest way to defuse a tense situation was to give kids (if they were present) a small toy or candy. If they weren’t present, I’d still give the adults a small token of affection. I’d take off my helmet and my sunglasses, look them in the eye, speak softly, and touch their arms or elbows every once in a while. Worked every time I tried it–but you have to like and trust people to pull it off.
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Which brings me to answer Ron’s question: yes, I think part of the reason the soldiers at Abu Ghraib willingly degraded and abused the Iraqi prisoners under their care and custody is because there is a dislike of Iraqis. It’s impossible to tell the difference–at first sight–between an innocent Iraqi and an insurgent, and because of that, you’re forced to assume the worst and live in permanent suspicion and, dare I say it, fear.

And because of that, it makes it easier to dehumanize the people you’re supposed to be protecting. In many ways, the Iraq war is nothing more than a particularly rough urban police beat. There is widespread loathing of doing police work in the Army in particular, and in the military in general. But that’s exactly what we need to be doing all over Iraq: showing the flag, walking the beat, making ourselves known, and getting to know both the cities and the people we’re guarding and protecting. That’s the only way we’re going to get the intelligence we need in order to protect our forces and defeat the insurgents. We’re certainly not going to get it by degrading and abusing people who, by and large, have nothing to do with the insurgency save for speaking the same language and practicing the same creed.
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I saw the Nick Berg decaptitation last night. Truly sick, sick stuff. But listening to the story, something doesn’t click, and maybe some of you know more than I do about this:

The Iraqi Police pick him up, detain him for a few days, and then turn him over to our forces. We hold him for another two weeks. Then–am I getting this right–we simply let him go? We didn’t offer to host him, or throw him on a convoy heading south to Kuwait?

Something’s not right there. I find it incomprehensible that we’d simply let an American civilian walk away from our forces into the maelstrom. At the very least, we would have held him until things calmed down, and if not, we would have sent him down to Kuwait, either via airplane (by way of LSA Anaconda, the big airbase in our neck of the woods), or by ground down Highway 1, which will take you down to Kuwait.

If we let him walk away–with no protection–then the unit responsible for holding him has some explaining to do.

By the way, random civilians on the battlefields of Iraq aren’t as rare as you might think. For example, I ran into several members of the Christian Peacemaker Teams, who were investigating rumours of abuses, along with the ICRC. And every time I ran into them, I was worried that they would be attacked. They drove around Iraq in unarmored vehicles, trusting in the kindness of strangers and the grace of God. We never interned any of them, because they were representing an established organization on the ground–a situation different from Nick Berg’s, who was out there on his own.

I think there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Just a hunch. And my thoughts go out to the Berg family.

UPDATE: For what it’s worth, I also saw the Daniel Pearl decapitation. This one, in my opinion, was a lot worse; the audio adds a depraved dimension to it, as you hear Nick Berg screaming and the murderers chanting “God is great”. They didn’t kill an innocent man because of Abu Ghraib; I suspect they would have killed Berg had Abu Ghraib not happened, simply because he’s American, and this band of thugs hates Americans. What happened at Abu Ghraib was merely a convenient excuse for them.

For what it’s also worth, I feel foul having seen Berg’s death. I can’t emphasize how truly disturbing the video is. Watch if you want–but you’re not going to learn or understand or get anything out of it that you wouldn’t have by not seeing it.

I’m going to try to cleanse myself, but I suspect I’ll fail; there’s far too much muck these days, and it sticks to you without you even trying to get dirty.

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6 responses to “The Mighty Pen

  1. I was in the military [AF 66-74 intel] and then law enforcement. Totally different rules of engagement. They put all of the civil affairs units in the Guards and Reserves and have no cohesiveness in an occupation. I worked a couple of joint missions and there was no comfort level.

    I can’t believe that these MPs didn’t go down the check-list before being deployed. Geneva Convention and Code of Conduct briefings were standard before going to a combat zone.

    This whole thing smells. If they stop a guy and go to the trouble of calling in the FBI, the easiest thing to do is deport him. Why hold him in Iraq? Ship him to the rear in Kuwait and make him someone else’s problem.

  2. I have toyed with the following idea for some time, Ark, of an entirely different approach to the occupation. Essentially, abandon “force protection” as the overriding goal. Ditch the body armor, change the rules of engagement, get out and mingle in small groups, strictly control the impulse to massive retaliation both at the instant of an attack and after. This is a policy of sacrificing many more soldier’s lives than we have lost with the aim of building much more mutual trust and sympathy than we have managed. By “many more lives” I’m imagining an order of magnitude more KIAs. The hope is that you overcome the “giant lizards from another star” phenomenon and that those locals who are not irremediably opposed to the US presence become so outraged at attacks on people they’ve come to like and depend on that “the sea of the people” dries up around the insurgent fish.

    And as attractive as it sounds, I always end up thinking: 1) politically, the country wouldn’t stand for it – we would loudly decry putting our boys out there “naked” on street corners once the bodies started rolling in; 2) the psychological toll on the troops would be unbearable, and 3) there’s just no way I could ask people like you and Ginmar and Captain Chown et al to lay yourselves out like that. It amounts to “make yourself a bigger target” for some very speculative, notional payoff down the line.

    Which is to say, the thing we’re doing doesn’t work and the thing that might work we can’t do.

  3. “On April 10, four days after Berg was released from an Iraqi prison, an American diplomat offered to put him on a flight to Jordan, State Department spokeswoman Kelly Shannon said.” From the WaPo.

    State may be marginally more believable than DOD, at this point.

  4. Jim,

    I believe that this was the founding principle of the Peace Corps. Maybe also the Jesuits?

  5. the watcher

    If u ask me and Im sure many others there is alot more behind this murder just as i believe there is alot more behind sept 11th. If you really research like I have been the past two yrs you can find FACTs that will lead you to believe we are all being lied to. hhhmmmmm….maybe a police state or new world govt…..may seem crazy at first but the facts are there.

  6. the watcher

    If u ask me and Im sure many others there is alot more behind this murder just as i believe there is alot more behind sept 11th. If you really research like I have been the past two yrs you can find FACTs that will lead you to believe we are all being lied to. hhhmmmmm….maybe a police state or new world govt…..may seem crazy at first but the facts are there.