Update: My War, Over and Out

29 08 2004

Those of you who began reading this blog with my review of CBFTW’s My War–Fear and Loathing in Iraq (CBFTW is a Hunter Thompson fan) and got thoroughly hooked on it in the days and weeks afterward most likely already know this, but for those of you who may be tuning in late, My War has been shut down–maybe by CBFTW himself, but maybe by the Army, and for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Ron Brynaert at Why Are We Back in Iraq? has done a nice job summarizing the story, some of which I didn’t know.

[O]ne day he posted a story which claimed that he just fought a battle with Al Qaeda…bad enough…but he also claimed (mostly based upon the word of one of his Commanding Officers) that the enemies were Al Qaeda that had come into Iraq from Iran.

That seems to have been the beginning of his difficulties (although Ron mentions that right-wing commenters had begun using My War as a platform for supporting the SGW and attacking anyone who didn’t or whose support was less than enthusiastic), though why it should have been is a mystery. The battle was reported in the press, as was the participation of AQ which came straight from official Army statements; C was merely repeating what we already knew. The Army also didn’t seem to have a problem with it since they left it up. They did, however, decide that from then on they wanted to see what he wrote before he posted it. And they wanted some changes.

The first noticable change was that the title was shortened to “My War.” I guess the Military don’t do irony. Then he started to become annoyed with the myriad of posters on his blog. He was trying to sanitize his site for the brass…but posters were copy-and-pasting and resubmitting some of his posts.

No, Ron, the military doesn’t do ‘irony’. They don’t know what it is but they’re pretty sure it must be a way of making fun of them.

If the commenters were a drag, he could have shut them off. He was running a new Blogger template and all he had to do was go to the comments settings and click ‘No’. From that point on, no comments would have been allowed. A lot of bloggers whose comments sections are becoming wastelands of right-wing troll excess have been forced to do that–or threaten to. C must have known that–maybe he isn’t a techie but he had to turn them on when he set up the blog, so he knew he could turn them off. He could even delete the ones that had already been posted. That wasn’t the real problem. Here’s the real problem (Ron again):

Then he became famous.He began getting write-ups here and there throughout the land. One day, the Wall Street Journal ran a story which carried his name, and while it didn’t mention his blog, it pretty much told the same story as one of his posts (I’m not going to give the exact link…because his name is in it). Then NPR ran a piece on him. Yet, they (stupidly…though they later corrected it by deleting it) made a direct connection to his name and blog.

On August 19th, CB’s only post was the text to the 1st Amendment, which created a ton of wild speculation. He returned briefly to the blog warning his fans again not to copy-and-paste. But most wouldn’t listen.

There’s more to this story (read Ron’s whole post) but that, I think, is the heart of it.

The Army is notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to the media–any media. After the Viet Nam War, they began treating the press as if it were as much an enemy as the enemy. The reason was simple: the press of that day told the truth about what was happening in Viet Nam, and that truth was not necessarily complimentary to the military. Their arrogance, bad decisions, and total misunderstanding of both the enemy they were fighting and the kind of war it was were paraded nightly on television. The massive exaggeration of the number of enemy killed and the orders to exaggerate were reported in full. Westmoreland’s blunt style wasn’t a good fit for tv but that wasn’t what did him in. His downfall–and to some extent the Army’s with him–came from his own mouth: he insisted that things were true that we could see for ourselves were not. His credibility at the end of his tenure was below that of a used-car salesman or Scott McClellan.

And then there were the pictures–of a South Vietnamese intelligence officer shooting a suspected VC in the head at point-blank range; of a naked Vietnamese woman running down the road, screaming, from her napalmed village; of a platoon of Special Forces commandos posing with their collection of VC body parts–ears, teeth, noses, fingers–and smiling for the camera. Americans began to ask themselves, ‘What kind of war is this? What’s it doing to our boys?’, and once they started asking, the war was as good as over. For the answers were not satisfactory.

The Domino Theory–that the Soviets intended to take over the world one country at a time and so we had to stop them in Viet Nam or they’d be invading Santa Monica–had by 1970 been so thoroughly discredited that not even the hard-liners used it as an excuse any more. The next line–that we were bringing democracy to Viet Nam and saving it from a dictatorial takeover–began to fall apart when we saw the destruction and havoc we were wreaking on that country in the name of saving it–a doctrine forever emblazoned in our minds by the phrase, ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it’ uttered by an unnamed Army Colonel. Eventually, it was just too hard to see what we saw and believe that there would be much country left to democratize when we got done with it.

The third excuse–that we were protecting the people of South Viet Nam from the revenge the Communist North Vietnamese would undoubtedly take on the South–was so weak it never got any traction. The South Vietnamese wanted us gone worse than the insurgents; by then, they were more frightened of us than of anything their blood-cousins would be likely to do to them.

None of this was really the military’s fault. They were, to the best of their ability, trying to carry out their orders–orders from civilian commanders who knew even less than they did about the war they were being asked to fight; who had lots of theories and beliefs but no real experience; who were operating from a premise so profoundly false that there was no way it could ever have been brought into the real world. Viet Nam was their mistake, not the military’s.

But the military did make mistakes, some of them irretrievable. There was Tiger Force, there was My Lai, there was fragging because untrained looeys were being put in positions of authority and getting men killed unnecessarily, there were the inflated body-counts and the inflated ‘victories’, and on and on. In the end, the military, particularly the Army, was blamed for both its own mistakes and the mistakes of its civilian commanders, and the way they saw it, it was the press that was doing the blaming.

They reacted at first by over-reacting: they began to shut the press out entirely. During the First Gulf War, they controlled the press with an iron fist. No reporter was allowed to go anywhere near the actual fighting; most were ordered into far-away enclaves–hotels in Kuwait and Cairo–where they were totally dependent on military press officers for information. No tv, no radio, no photographers. The shut-down worked so well that it was years before we even heard about the Highway of Death much less saw pictures of it. The Army had used silence and secrecy to rehabilitate its reputation. It liked the result.

During the invasion of Iraq, it was so confident in its ability to control the press that it allowed some reporters to ride with certain selected units, ’embedded’ with them. It was a brilliant strategy. Not only could they control everything the ’embeds’ saw or heard, but the embeds began to identify themselves with the units with which they rode, becoming cheerleaders rather than reporters.

Then the Army set up CentCom with the help of Republican PR strategist and dirty-tricks specialist Jim Wilkenson, a Hollywood-style set faked to look like a military HQ but miles from the action, and herded the giant press corps into it like cows, feeding them pre-digested pap that everybody had to pretend was ‘information’. The results must have been beyond their wildest expectations–glowing reports filled the nation’s tv screens, the military was all but worshipped, dissenters and questioners were–and still are–shouted down with calls of ‘Traitor!’, often accompanied by vocal and colorfully detailed threats.

In other words, they learned that absolute control works. The Viet Nam lesson was, “Show them only what you want them to see and prevent them at all costs from seeing anything else.’ It is a dictum they have lived by in the years since and it has served them well.

It is not too much to infer that that strict control has been or is being extended to soldier-blogs like C’s. Until the plug got pulled on My War, it frankly never occurred to me that anyone would care what he wrote as long as he wasn’t doing dumb things like giving away their position or plans in advance, which he wasn’t. He’s a smart kid, and he was always careful to include only general information that the enemy would already know or personal details that would be of no interest or value to them.

But I was wrong. They did care. It wasn’t the comments and it wasn’t that he was giving away military secrets, which he wasn’t. It was the potential notoriety and, more importantly, the possibility that C might say something that wasn’t completely flattering to the military, the president, his commanders or those who commanded them. Look at the evidence as they must have seen it: he had a b & w copy of the most famous anti-war picture ever painted–Picasso’s Guernica–on his header; he was a fan of the most notorious and undisciplined gonzo journalist of all time, infamous for ferocious independence, a dogged refusal to write what was expected, and insisting that nothing–NOTHING–was ‘off the record’; and he was getting noticed by the media. The WSJ was alright, but that bastion of Communists, fellow-travelers, and military-bashers, NPR? Not acceptable. And NPR didn’t help, although I can’t see that publishing his name should have been a huge problem–Sgt Chris Missick has his name all over A Line in the Sand and nobody is terribly concerned about him. But then, Sgt Missick isn’t a potential dissenter.

And that, I think, was the real issue: C wanted to tell the truth and the Army didn’t want to take the chance that he would. The Army did not want to risk losing control of the official message, the only message the media was allowed to get. They didn’t want any loose cannons. Whether they shut down C’s site because it was one, or C shut it down himself rather than be told what he could or couldn’t write, I don’t know. At this point, only C does. If the latter, I can understand why and I support his decision; if the former, it was a mistake.

C had grown enormously as a writer in the short months he had his blog. While I disagree with Ron’s characterization that C’s early posts ‘weren’t well-written’–they may have been short on grammar and badly organized, but as I said in my review, there was a raw but undeniable talent there struggling to get out, and that was clear from the git-go–there’s no argument that the more he wrote, the better he got. Even his grammar improved (he was concerned about that), and the way he organized his posts, while still scattershot, was beginning to show the earmarks of a subtle and sophisticated coherence–throughlines based on hidden connections and not-immediately-obvious resonances that would have escaped a casual eye. He was seeing more and seeing more deeply, and he was proving that he could write what he saw.

If the Army shut him down, they shouldn’t have. He was a forceful voice for their presence in Iraq and he wasn’t doing it with the PR jargon that many of us now dismiss as soon as we read it. He was doing it by letting us see what was really going on and how it affected both sides. Ultimately, it’s in the military’s best interest that we know those things, and their strongest argument lies in our understanding and support. Whether he knew it or not, intended it or not, C’s writing was explaining and defining that role from ground-level.

C had the distinction of being that truly rare bird, a non-partisan. He wasn’t for the war and he wasn’t against it, he was just a grunt doing a job and telling us about it as plainly and as honestly as he could. As he said in an email to Ron, ‘I’m not a republican or a democrat, I’m just a skater from SF who’s packin a machine gun in iraq at the moment.’ My War let us connect with him and others just like him in a direct way that isn’t available from any other source. In the long run, the military could only benefit from such a connection. In the long run, they can only suffer because it was broken.

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17 responses

29 08 2004
Mr. Natural

Thank you so much for your take on the demise or shut-down of MY WAR FEAR AND LOATHING IN IRAQ…I truly enjoyed the young man’s views of what he did and saw…I also enjoyed the flashbacks to the Vietnam days. I got out of the service in 1969 after 4 years. OF COURSE I blogged your story on http://leftedgenorth.blogspot.com/

30 08 2004
Anonymous

I truly hope it was not the Military who shut him down. I also think that his writing was a great asset to them. He showed that our military members were not subhuman killers, were not uneducated dolts looking for a way out of poverty. He is what I’ve come to expect of our soldiers, a person with integrity doing a job that few choose to do. I am a conservative and know that CB was not, but I’ve found that did not matter in the long run because he was real and untarnished in his portrayal of his daily life in a war environment. He showed what most of us never get to see from the press, that our sons and daughters are good and decent people doing a hard job and doing it well.

Tricky; Former Soldier

30 08 2004
adoptaplatoon_mom

very well said.

31 08 2004
Mick

Joe: Thanks for your comments and the link. Yeah, to me the whole Iraq thing has been a flashback to Nam–the same mistakes for pretty much the same reasons. I remember guys like C coming back from being in country; they told their stories just like he told his, at least they did when you could get them to talk.

Tricky: I appreciate both your comment and how well it was phrased but I’d be careful about knocking the kids who join because they have few other options.

First: they exist.

Second: there’s nothing wrong with joining the Army because it offers a future.

Third: many of those who joined that way nevertheless volunteered to go to Iraq because they believed it was the right thing to do; assuming that a poor kid for whom the Army represented a way to improve his/her life is somehow inferior and/or less patriotic in his/her service is both unfair and insulting. I don’t think you meant it that way, but that’s how it came out.

Those ‘uneducated dolts’ are often smart enough to realize that the Army is offering what an increasingly selfish society has been stripping away–a chance to do better. And FYI, C wrote in an email to me that he didn’t do very well in high school and that he was planning to use his GI Bill to go to college when he got out. He didn’t tell me if he joined because he was one of those ‘uneducated dolts looking for a way out of poverty’ and I didn’t ask, but he might be. Maybe the fact that he fooled you into thinking he wasn’t one means that at least some of those ‘uneducated dolts’ have more going for them than you thought if you’d just give them an opportunity to prove it. Maybe you should rethink that particular prejudice.

Poverty does NOT equal stupidity. Some poor kids are stupid; so are some rich kids. Most are just ignorant. They don’t have the chances kids from wealthier families have to travel, buy computers, or go to better schools where maybe the ceilings aren’t falling down because the town or the city can’t afford to fix them and maybe the science books were published after 1950.

And what exactly is wrong with looking for a way out of poverty and using the military if it offers that chance? The Army in particular sells itself that way and has been ever since it went all volunteer. It targets those kids because it knows–and they know–that, unlike a lot of corporations I could name, the military is willing to pay to give kids a step up who would be buried in McDonald’s otherwise.

Fourth: It doesn’t ultimately matter how any of them got there, and we should be ashamed of ourselves if we start separating out which soldiers we’re going to value based on why we imagine they joined. The point is that whether they joined specifically to fight the war or because they wanted to better their lives, they’re doing the goddam job WE asked them to do. And for that they deserve our respect and admiration. Period.

adoptaplatoon_mom: Thanks, if you meant me.

31 08 2004
Anonymous

Hey Mick you understood my point exactly. I meant to say our soldiers don’t ONLY join out of poverty. They don’t ONLY join because they are not smart enough to get into college or find a great job. Even the ones who join out of poverty or lack of education deserve our respect and go on to accomplish great things, both in service and out.

I have found in my experience, in my 10 years of service, some of the most loyal, intelligent, moral and humble people in my life. I thank every day I was given the opportunity to serve with and under such great men and women, Truly a privilege. I know that sounds like a advertisement, it wasn’t always great. I met a lot of ass holes, idiots and yes-men, but buy and large a great bunch of folks.

Tricky; Former Soldier

1 09 2004
Mick

Thanks for the clarification, Tricky. I figured you didn’t mean it the way it sounded.

But I went on at length anyway because there are people who do mean it that way. Ever since Michael Moore’s film pointed out the military’s concentration on recruiting in poor neighborhoods (there’s nothing new about that), some boosters of the military, most of them civilians, have shown a disturbing willingness to put them down, call them names, and generally minimize their service as somehow less important. Some have gone as far as to deny that they exist, to claim that Moore made up the whole thing as a way to bash Bush.

In the process, they missed Moore’s point. There’s a legitimate question here about the military concentrating so heavily on poor kids, especially in a time of war. I know why the military does it and so do you: better-off kids don’t need the leg up that the military can offer. But that begs the question: don’t the wealthy owe some service to their country in an emergency or in war-time? aren’t they just as patriotic? do we really want to fight our wars with primarily lower-class kids as cannon-fodder?

Unfortunately, Moore is a satirist and polemicist, not a documentary film-maker, so he didn’t make his point very clearly and he provided few stats in support of it. What is the breakdown, exactly? What are the percentages of lower-income, middle-income and upper-income enlistments pre- and post-war? Are they anything close to the ratios in society?

You’re not going to find out from Moore because that’s not the film he was doing. But we do need to know to have a rational discussion about it, and we don’t. In the absence of hard evidence, it makes no sense to me to push one’s advocacy by denigrating a whole class of people who are doing what we asked them to do because, we claim, they ‘had no choice’. And what if, when we have real numbers, we find out that Moore was right? That a disproportionate number of battlefield casualties or front-line troops or even our military as a whole are low-income kids and that wealthier kids were left out? Should the military change its practices and try doing as much recruiting at suburban high schools as it does in poorer schools? Should we be assuming that America’s kids are so unpatriotic that they have to be bought? I just don’t believe that.

If the WOT goes on as long as the conservatives are now claiming it will, we’re going to have to face these questions at some point. In the meantime, coming down on kids who joined the military to improve their lives is a sad way to argue a point, and most of what I said was intended for anyone who happened by who thinks that way.

A week ago I wrote a post at Dispatch from the Trenches on a supposed skilled-worker shortage that quoted a business-owner complaining that the applicants he was getting were badly trained in geometry and trigonometry, and I wondered why, if the shortage was so acute that it was hurting his business, he didn’t pay the minimal amount it would cost to send them to night school in exchange for a commitment to work for him for a year or two?

That’s what the military does and it’s a good deal all around. Why don’t corporations do it, too? They used to. It made me wish that contemporary corporations had half the sense of responsibility, loyalty, and appreciation for their employees that the military has for its recruits.

1 09 2004
Anonymous

Hey

I found your blog through a link from “My War” – which I really enjoyed before CB made some very stupid moves and got himself into trouble.

I’m not sure why he linked to you though – your blog is completely awful. You should consider finishing high school.

1 09 2004
Mick

‘Completely awful’? You don’t even like the inkwell? I thought it was a cute touch. Oh well, you can’t please everybody.

One word of advice: I finished high school and a year of college before the money ran out. I’d suggest you finish 3rd grade before you trash other people for a lack of education.

3 09 2004
Garret

Hey Mick,

As previous commenters have mentioned, I found your blog through CB’s links. I have to say that I really don’t believe that the military shut him down. From the very beginning, he was concerned about his identity becoming public knowledge. Once his blog grew to overwhelming heights of popularity, I think he just needed to step back.

He’s already posted the story of when his BC gave him the okay to keep blogging. I kind of doubt that the military just changed its mind. Ultimately, I think it just got too much for him to deal with.

3 09 2004
Mick

Garrett: It’s a possibility, of course. And in their favor, as somebody pointed out, they could have shut all the milblogs down and eliminated the problem, which they haven’t done. They’re obviously trying to work out a policy toward them that will satisfy opsec and still allow some self-expression by soldiers. The families want it, the public wants it, and the troops want it.

Nobody knows the answer at this point, but if CB ran afoul of the military’s desire to control PR rather than for opsec insecurity, as it appears, I think they made a mistake.

As for CB shutting it down because he was overwhelmed, 2 observations:

1) He wasn’t writing like he was overwhelmed. The words and thoughts were pouring out; he was writing in a white heat, and writers who do that aren’t overwhelmed, they’re in the zone.

2) The message of the last post seems pretty clear. Altho one can wonder who exactly he felt cheated him–the military, the people who outed him–it does seem obvious that he feels he was forced to give something up that he would rather not have.

Still, we won’t know for sure until he speaks, and maybe not then.

4 09 2004
Ron Brynaert

It’s all still speculation. But CB wrote many times about stopping his blog because he had to submit his posts before posting them.

Why is it so hard for some people to believe that the Military were the ones that told him to stop? I have no proof that they did it. But the fact is that when a person signs up with the military he gives up the right to criticize the government. And while CB danced around portraying his true feelings about the current commander-in-chief, he did endorse Ralph Nader for President on his website. Aside from declaring that he was going to vote for Nader because it was the “fuck-you” vote, he also provided a link to the Ralph Nader Campaign.

P.S. While I’m incredibly appreciative of Mick’s comments on my piece, and I think he did an awesome job expanding on it, there is one inaccuracy. I never wrote that CBs early posts “weren’t well-written.” I wrote, “At first, his posts weren’t that well written.” The omission of ‘that’ distorts my “characterization.” But mad props to Mick anyway.

Peace,
Ron Brynaert

4 09 2004
Mick

I’ll take the note, Ron. Apologies if I misunderstood you.

Despite the fact that two other milblogs were also shut down around the same time, I tend to think C shut it down himself, as I said, rather than be told what he could or couldn’t write. He never struck me as the kind of writer who would take well to censorship, however mild–there was too much gonzo in his work.

Besides Thompson, altho this may seem odd, the writers C most reminds me of are Thomas Wolfe and the young Jack Kerouac–pure writers, both. Not stylistically–C has already developed a distinctive style–but in the hot, mad rush of words. Considering how little time he had, he wrote a lot. There was the same sense in it of somebody trying to get down everything swirling around in his head as fast and as true as possible that I get from reading the two novelists. Both had to be heavily edited–Perkins had to cut half of Look Homeward, Angel to get a book out of it he could publish–because neither could stand to leave anything out. C was more disciplined than that, but even so there was the same kind of ‘Don’t fuck with me, I’m on a streak’ fire in his stuff.

Someday we’ll know. That kid is too talented to just disappear.

PS I know what it means from the context (I’ve seen it before) but where does ‘mad props’ come from? What props and why should they be mad? It’s a Brit/Aussie expression, right?

6 09 2004
Anonymous

Crikey!

That was the longest piece of bollocks I’ve read for some time. Your Vietnam analysis is stuck in the ’60s.

I like the kid’s blog though. Shame he’s closed it down.

6 09 2004
Mick

Your Vietnam analysis is stuck in the ’60s.What the hell does that mean?

In the first place, it wasn’t an analysis. It was a short history of the way the military has dealt with the press since Viet Nam. I didn’t ‘analyze’ anything. Those are all verifiable, on-the-record facts.

In the second place, what’s ‘stuck in the 60’s’ about it? Most of it was about the change in relations since the First Gulf War–which was in the 90’s, dude. Try to keep up.

Bollocks, yourself.

8 09 2004
Ron Brynaert

Mad props…as far as I know…it is an African-American saying. Props…short for proper…refers to respect…rappers frequently invoke it when they get good publicity.

10 09 2004
D.Mc.

Mick,

One more person here who found your site from CB’s, and I’ll spend some time reading the rest of your posts this weekend.

Your comments on the military’s use and abuse of the press growing out of its experience in Vietnam could not be better stated and could not be more correct. Never accuse the military of not learning from what they perceive as a mistake. Thanks for those comments.

I completely agree on your thoughts on CB and Thomas Wolfe in the comments following the post. Wolfe will forever be one of my favorite authors, and one I can read time and time again. I appreciate Maxwel Perkins making TW’s books “readable” through his editing, but I would really love to read the parts that were cut, despite the possibility that Wolfe recycled them into the other three books.

Reading CB’s unedited posts is a treat. I hope there is a book or two in the future, and I hope CB finds an editor as gifted as Perkins was with Wolfe’s writings. It will be fun to compare the book to the originals.

Great site.

12 09 2004
Mick

Thanks. Hope you enjoy it. The site’s still new and lack of time has prevented me doing as much as I’d hoped I could by now. Then I got slowed down by the dead zone of August, when a number of the sites I wanted to review were on hiatus. All of them, I think. But I have another fiery milblog to let you know about coming this weekend or Monday, a real doozy of a read, and a couple of other non-military surprises when we get rolling again.

Some of the material from Look Homeward, Angel was recycled, particularly in You Can’t Go Home Again, but a lot of it wasn’t. If you’re familiar with Wolfe, tho, I’m not sure you’d need to read it. Wolfe went through a re-discovery in the mid and late 60’s and somebody actually published a book of excised material from 3 of Wolfe’s novels. I read it, and what Perkins cut he cut for a reason. There was a LOT of repetition. Wolfe would go over the same scene five times, writing it from different viewpoints or different angles, sometimes appearing to have forgotten he’d already written it several times before. There was also a ton of useless descriptive prose to wade through, pages and pages and pages of it. He had a poetic turn of phrase but apart from that I thought reading it was like working in a salt mine–something nobody would do if they didn’t have to.

The book I had has long since vanished but if you’re really interested maybe you can find it. I don’t remember who edited it or published it–it was 40 years ago and I can barely remember what I had for supper last night–but I think it was called ‘The Lost Wolfe’ or something along those lines. It was a paperback, I’m pretty sure. Maybe that will narrow it down. Good luck.

And don’t forget to come back. By Monday there will be some new stuff, and I’m hoping to get some feedback on Chris’ plan.

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