Sunday, November 19, 2006


General Abizaid, the commander in Iraq, was at Hahvahd a few days ago, at the Kennedy School of Government (or as they often say in the Army: "Gummint"). There was a time in this country when you got dressed up to go to Hahvahd, just like you got dressed up to get on a plane. Each was in its way a special locus of The American Way and you sorta wanted to respect that.

Not anymore. The General wore his combat fatigues. Not the ones that made you look like a forest elf, nor the ones from the Gulf War that made you look like one of those sand-creatures from "Star Wars", but the new ones that make you look like a stippled trout.

What, do you suppose, was his motive?

One imagines that he might have wanted to impress the insembled entourage with the fact that there is a war on and that he has taken time out from his busy schedule to talk to them. But surely, if anyone treading the sacred boards at Hahvahd would be aware of serious goings-on in the outside world, it would be the crowd that brunches at the Kennedy School. Maybe, though, he was going for the wider public who, although naturally not invited, would get all they needed to know from the photo-op.

Or perhaps he was trying to prove his manhood. There’s nothing like combat fatigues and stippled trout to announce to the world that you are a true Manly Man. Especially if you are addressing the ongoing wienie roast that is Hahvahd in convocation assembled. And of course, the Man of All Men, John Wayne himself, visited Hahvahd once, driving into the Square on a combat vehicle loaned to him by the military. Of course, Wayne wasn’t in the process of losing a war, nor had he ever – although Henry Fonda almost got him killed near Fort Apache and, as always, there was The Alamo. General Abizaid did not arrive on a combat vehicle; they are presently in short supply, being chewed up at a prodigious rate on the Eastern front. But no matter: today manly men of consequence arrive in armored SUV’s with blackened windows, that travel in gaggles, surrounded by police vehicles which themselves often bear their operators’ military decal of choice. And then they get to the chopper(s) and lift off, perhaps to commune with the other gods of war up there shielded by the clouds.

Curiously, though, he is quoted. We shall pass over in silence his assertions that the General thinks we are winning this fight, as we shall his Commander-in-Chief’s (yes, veterans of America: George Bush is General Abizaid’s commander-in-chief, but he is not yours) almost simultaneous assertion in Hanoi that “We’ll succeed unless we quit”.

No, he made a remark about his uniform: he noted that he wasn’t wearing his standard uniform: the one with the white shirt, black tie, green pants and black shoes, and the green suit-jacket covered in decorations and those many, many stars. It was, he said, “covered in blood”. Well, if we have reached the point where the command generals cannot get their uniforms dry-cleaned, then things are going even worse on the Eastern front than we have been told. But of course he was making a joke. He damned well did have a good uniform on a hanger not far away. But Props told him to shoot this scene in the trout-suit and so he did. And the “blood” crack was a little-Manly reminder to the assembly that previous generations of Hahvahd students had thrown blood on soldiers returning from Vietnam. And of course, that it was the Hahvahd studentry, aided and abetted by the faculty, who had lost Vietnam; who had gotten all those dozens of thousands of American kids killed. The generals spent their sleepless nights in-country just wanting their “folks”, their “people”, to have a nice day. In the inimitable word of Dwight David Eisenhower: “Yah.”

On the way back to the chariots, he and his staffers encountered demonstrators. He is quoted as saying to his staff: “Put your shields on, boys.” Now, frankly, this one puzzles. Yes, there is an established tradition of soldiers being associated with shields: Spartan lads departing for a campaign were told by their mothers to come home with them … or on them. Roman generals who lost wars often fell on their … ah, no, that was swords, and come to think of it, the Army doesn’t do swords anymore. Too much danger of tripping over them, or of too easily reminding people that you had one handy in case you needed to be called to account for a failing war.

But even as unswordy a guy as Abizaid should know that the armor-shield was put “up”, not “on”. It wasn’t so much worn as it was carried. If indeed he is sufficiently recollected to be thinking of Roman generals at all after just giving a talk at Hahvahd.

Of course, there IS a way in which shields are “put up”. In Starfleet, on starships, one is always well-advised to do so: “Shields up, Mr. …” whoever was ever the command that heralded the rolling of the good times. James Tiberius Kirk, the unflappable Picard, the no-crap-taken Janeway … perhaps at this point in the flow of history the General Abizaid is more comfortable seeing himself as a fantasy commander than as the actual commander. They don’t ever lose, and so much of what he’s telling us is not so far from fantasy anyway.

And while we’re in the realm of fantasy, we have Joe Conason in Salon ( talking about Jim Webb. Well and good. But while he is making some very good points in favor of Senator-elect Webb, he feels constrained for whatever reason to shout-out to “the military officers who tried and failed to preserve habeas corpus, due process, and the Geneva Conventions from the zealous authoritarians of the Bush administration”.

There is a need in the media these days to have to have a ‘good guy’ if you’re going to be fingering a ‘bad guy’; it’s part of the entertainment-driven dumbing-down of news that’s also eaten deeply into the capabilities of much of the citizenry: American scripts have good guys so that good guys can eventually win over the bad guy; it’s all about black&white, you can’t have any complications. And we owe this development as much to the Advocacies as to Fox News. And there is also this instinctive need among many journalists to shout-out to military officers, sorta like the half-sober no-life who always has to go over to the uniformed cop in the donut shop and start talking loudly about the new paint scheme on the cruiser. There’s probably a professional term for this sort of thing, in the DSM.

Anyhoo, Mr. Conason is too clever by half in his little aside. He is, of course, not referring just to “military officers” (such as the heretofore mentioned General Abizaid) but to military lawyers. And in this particular case, to the Boss of all lawyers in his particular Service – the big JAG. Or the Big Giant JAG, the JAG to whom all the other JAGs are subordinate and from whom – whether they are functioning as judges, prosecutors, or defense attorneys – they take their orders.

These Big Giant JAGs preside over the military justice system; they are all generals (2-star) or admirals (2-star – although they’ve all been angling to surf this war’s waves to get themselves a 3rd star). Some things have been said about that system (see “Bishops Bomb” elsewhere on this site). And more will be forthcoming in a future Post. Enough for now to say that from where I am standing, the extraordinary events (to put it politely) of the past five years are not the result of Bush’s perversion of the military justice system but rather simply of his arrogant overextension of it. And losing his gamble in the process.

Thus, after five years of silence, now that the war is being lost and the ugly phrase ‘war crimes’ is being mentioned in reference to American officers and officials (Nuremberg with the Americans on the other side of the bench, as it were), the Big Giant JAGs suddenly came and stood up tall, to stop the Military Commissions Act. They were not going to let their good names and character be associated with this very very bad idea, they were dedicated professionals, there is a Higher Law, things could go wrong. Yah.

They were supported by Senators McCain and Graham, who would support them in their tall-standing. Thus reassured, the public rested a bit more easily, until all the bhoys caved the night before the Big Game, the Act got passed, and now neither the Big Giant JAGs or the honorable Senators seem to be standing up. Given what they must have done for the Act to pass so suddenly and easily, it’s a wonder they can sit. That Mr. Graham is himself an ex-military lawyer, who then got into the Reserves as a military lawyer, who then had a nice rank, and who then got himself both elected to the Senate and appointed as a judge in the military-justice system … but he, like so many others, is an honorable man. Shame on us who think ill of it. Yah.

No word from the BGJs since the Act passed. Perhaps they were too discouraged by the completeness of the Congressional dismissal of their purported concerns. Or perhaps they were just covering their bases, perhaps even with Administration approval, to distract folks (and the always easy-to-distract mainstream media) from the content of the Act by letting them watch what looked to be a dog-fight among the gods there in Washington City.

However the job was managed, the idea of referring to them as the “military officers who tried” is like referring to Al Capone as “the noted Chicago businessman”. Yes, it’s true, as far as it goes, but it don’t hardly go far enough to be worth the sayin’. And that so many of the media won’t say that makes me think they like to be seen talkin’ to men in uniform.

So the Bosses are trying to do a bunch of things at once: keep Bush happy while remembering that after he’s gone they’re still small enough fish to be tossed into any war-crimes net that might get thrown. And, as far as their ‘professional’ concerns, they’ve got to keep Bush from so overextending their core racket (the military justice system, about which more later) that he exposes it and it’s cleaned up (which no Pentagoon wants to see) and/or its high-priests are hauled before the courts themselves (which ditto).

It’s not easy being a Big Giant JAG these days. It’s never is easy being in a command position, if the outrages you cockily perpetrate turn out to be losing outrages as well. You might very well wind up being unable to go overseas for retirement vacations, or you might wind up making an extended inspection of the supermax fortress at Fort Leavenworth that they’ve built to house those caught in the toils of their ‘justice’ system, ‘the worst of the worst’ … oops, no, that moniker has now been assigned to a new bunch. And oops again – in all its fifty years of grinding on resolutely and implacably, the system has not sent one single general or admiral there. Apparently, although unable to develop the Star Wars technology or meet the demands of post-Soviet military operations, the Pentagoons have discovered the cure for Original Sin: make someone a general or an admiral. But if it’s true, what I’m thinking, then it’s classified. We’ll have to wait until the technology is released in commercial version, or until it’s sold to some foreign country. I imagine the Vatican might be interested.

Meanwhile, it’s just after Veterans’ Day and all over the world ‘the little people’ of the military keep on keeping on. They are where they are, Mr. and Ms. Spartan, obedient to o-u-r word. Let us take time to reflect on what we wish that word to be. Let us, this holiday season, follow the advice of a certain noted sage, put down the drink, go home and rethink our lives. Because so many lives depend on it. On us. On ‘We The People’.

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