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Weekly Commentary — Stanley McChrystal — the Petraeus’s Petraeus

2009 October 19
by rahul

The must-read article of the week is definitely Dexter Filkins’s profile of Stanley McChrystal in the New York Times magazine.

One must be careful reading Filkins. He is a very good reporter and an intelligent, insightful person – his profile of Ahmad Chalabi is still the one and only source I’ve seen that gave me any insight into what he could possibly have been thinking in his mad quest to become the new king of Iraq (like so many exiles, he had ignored the passage of time in his country, in particular the collapse of the old feudal order).

There’s only one problem – his attitude toward the U.S. military and their mission, whatever exactly it might be, is roughly akin to that of a typical teenage girl toward the Jonas brothers. His first portrait of Lt. Col. Nathan Sassaman made him out to be a great hero of the brave new world being created in Iraq; Sassaman, who was later forced out of the military because of the coverup of the murder of an Iraqi boy (he wasn’t involved in the murder), was in actuality a brutal overlord and a strong believer in putting the fear of God into the natives. When Filkins went into Fallujah during the second assault in November 2004, he was stunningly incurious about the possible use of chemical warfare by U.S. forces.

And his book The Forever War is a remarkable accomplishment: an acute observation and depiction of the reality of Iraq that actually makes it harder for the reader to understand and evaluate the occupation. His masterful evocation of the depravity to which so many Iraqis descended is not leavened by any useful explanation of the role the United States played in this descent, let alone by any understanding of these terrible acts as the acts of human beings not so different from us.

That said, I believe the general tenor of his reporting on McChrystal. Apparently, he is the Petraeus’s Petraeus; not only has he gone far further than anyone before in the “kinder, gentler” approach to counterinsurgency than any previous American commander anywhere, he can run faster than Petraeus as well.

Filkins recounts a striking incident. A U.S. foot patrol is attacked by a remote-control-detonated bomb. Although no one is seriously injured, the SOP in the past would have been to kick down everyone’s doors and raid their homes, yelling incomprehensibly at the residents. Even after the changes of 2005-2007, the response would have been quite forceful. Now, the soldiers ask for five men from the village to come forward, and plead with them for any information, which, unsurprisingly, they don’t get.

Perhaps even more striking is the meeting where McChrystal hassles a fellow general for gliding too comfortably past an airstrike that killed civilians.

Although these represent striking departures from business as usual, even under the “counterinsurgency paradigm,” in other ways McChrystal is no different from others. Filkins documents a ludicrous series of exchanges between McChrystal and “ordinary Afghans,” where he goes up to them and without preamble says “What do you need?” Some say security, some say development. It is utterly superficial and means nothing.

We have seen laudatory embedded reporting right from the beginning of the so-called “war on terror,” of course. This is credible, where earlier reporting wasn’t, for two reasons. First, the Obama administration is a conventional modernist rationalist bunch, not thoroughgoing postmodernists like Bush and friends; they understand that there must be some loose consonance between the words and deeds if credibility is to be maintained. Second, whereas “kinder, gentler” actions were earlier conceived as concessions to the laws of war or more often as fodder for PR to American audiences, significant parts of the U.S. military have bought into the idea that “kinder, gentler” is more militarily effective in counterinsurgencies. Mere humanitarian considerations could not have forced such profound changes in the mode of operation so quickly.

Whether this perception is accurate or not is far from clear. It depends on many things, including the strategy of the insurgency. While the changes McChrystal is attempting are very welcome (unlike the 40,000 additional troops he wants), there are two potential problems. First, it is hard to believe that he will be able to remake the basic attitudes, approaches, and inclinations of American solders to such a great degree. Second, it is impossible to believe that the military will hold to such changes in tactics if they prove unsuccessful.

And make no mistake; McChrystal has made himself so vulnerable not just by contradicting Obama but by articulating a vision of a war where the United States has nothing to gain, gives selflessly, and refrains from using violence even in situations where Americans are threatened. Such articulations are welcome and even necessary when they are propaganda for militarism; when they are actually sincere, they make all the important people very uncomfortable.

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