Archive for the ‘Iraq’ Category

The Obama Announcement

December 1, 2008

I watched in awe as President-Elect Barack Obama announced his national security team. There, as has been leaked, stood Senator Clinton aside the incoming president. It is remarkable in our political lifetime for a president to make such an ambitious pick — and for that pick to accept.

The Obama team faced a considerable challenge during today’s media availability. They had to manage the announcement — and the egos of the personalities involved –in such a way to highlight each member of the team without having it look unruly. It came across, more or less, as smooth. The journalists’ questions were all easily anticipated and mostly focused on challenging Obama on what statements he made about Clinton during the campaign. Other thoughts:


  • Permanent Representative to the United Nations is a good spot for the underwhelming Susan Rice. At the U.N. she can be an outspoken advocate for American values and diplomacy without having much to do with substance — although the elevation of this post to cabinet-level could alter the equation.
  • I could not miss Obama’s reference to the Middle East peace process. I wonder exactly how ambitious his plans are for this area.
  • A interesting spot of the event was Vice President-Elect Joseph Biden. He seemed to be chafing at the confines of his talking points. 
  • Expect some conflict between the presumptive national security adviser, James Jones, who has been critical of Israel, and Clinton. Writes Eli Lake: “When Obama makes that move [on the issues], the Jones-Clinton tensions may reprise the great Powell-Cheney fights of yore.”

Debate Fact Check: Republican Guard?

September 27, 2008

I noticed that both John McCain and Barack Obama both misspoke about the special para-military group within Iran. McCain called it the Republican Guard, a usage that Obama repeated when it was his turn to talk. The Republican Guard was Saddam Hussein’s special military unit. The Revolutionary Guard is what Iran’s special unit is called in English.

Berkley Breaks With Democratic Orthodoxy on Iraq

December 26, 2007

Shelley Berkley is the congresswoman for Las Vegas. Her delegation mate is Senate Majority Leader Reid. She has just returned from Iraq, and her perspective could be problematic for some Democrats. A former critic of the war in Iraq, her comments in the Las Vegas Review-Journal are upbeat and optimistic.

“This is a difference from what I anticipated,” Berkley told her hometown newspaper. “I did not anticipate the progress and the extraordinary morale of our troops.

“They believe they are turning the corner,” Berkley said. “Nobody is doing a victory lap at this point, but the reality is the military has done an extraordinary job.”

Berkley’s also praised the much-maligned Iraqi police.

“For years we had heard they weren’t ready to take over, but at this point there is such a significant difference,” Berkley said. “The Iraqis are truly stepping up to the plate and that accounts for the lowering of violence.

“Wherever you go, Iraqis and our American servicemen are telling us that the difference is dramatic,” Berkley said. “The violence is down 60 percent from last year.”

Ken Burns at Costco

October 25, 2007

Waterbury's Babe Ciarlo

A couple weeks ago I wanted to run into Costco in Dedham to pick up some delicious whitefish salad I had spread onto a bagel at my mother-in-law’s house, but I wasn’t allowed in. “Costco’s a private club,” she said. “It’s for members only.” I came back a couple days later, paid $50 and joined. As I write in The New York Sun, “Costco, like Manhattan’s Union, Century, and Harvard clubs, is a private organization — as I was informed several weeks ago — but it is one anybody in search of great quantities of Coca-Cola, paper towels, and baby formula can join for $100 or less.”

As I sped into the food section to purchase some delicious whitefish salad, I noticed a lonely sign. It advertised a book-signing by Ken Burns, America’s documentarian who has made the phrase “Ken Burns Effect” part of our lexicon. Burns is the director who produced the masterful PBS miniseries “The Civil War,” and “Baseball,” among many, others. His most recent project is the majestic film, “The War.” I had recently read Nick Wapshott’s essay about a screening for his film at the Modern Museum of Art in Manhattan and couldn’t believe that Burns would be making an appearance here of all places.

But here he was. Burns sat dressed neatly in a blue blazer in front of a large display of Vizio 60-inch and 42-inch big-screen HDTVs as eager fans lined up to meet him.His Costco appearance drew a cross-section of the public: aging war veterans, dental hygienists, and suburban parents. Mr. Burns’s gathering offered a glimpse into the American spirit at a time of war. And while a fair share of gift seekers in search of an autographed book for a loved one showed up, so too did Americans, ranging in age between 11 and 86, in search of a connection with the history of armed sacrifices for our republic.

Hugo Sweeney was typical: an 86-year-old former chief boatswain’s mate who manned the cutter Tampa as she escorted ships harassed by German U-boats between the American coast and Greenland. Sweeney remembered being on the convoy that saw the torpedoing of the transport ship Dorchester. Mr. Sweeney’s job was to help ferry the survivors to Boston from Iceland. Sweeney said he saw no difference between the American servicemen of his day and those currently fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. “The only problem is that the people aren’t backing them wholeheartedly.”

For his part, Burns said the public reception of his recent film was the most profound of any project he has been involved with. “It’s been more than the ‘Civil War.’ It’s been beyond belief,” he told me. “It evokes a much more intimate response. People have watched it with their dads, repaired relationships with their fathers, or felt their dead father was present.” One viewer, he recalled, sent him dirt from Omaha Beach; another mailed him buttons from a grandfather’s military uniform constructed in Waterbury, Conn. — one of the places Burns focuses on in his film.

Because of the subject matter, Burns captures a sense of the public mood when he does book and movie appearances. “I travel around the country, I always ask people how many know somebody in Iraq. If it’s 2%, it’s a big deal,” Burns said. “In World War II, on every street in any town in America, there wasn’t someone who didn’t experience, suffer from that war in some shape or form.”

Burns said a disconnect exists between the armed struggle taking place right now and the public. In his film, for instance, Burns included a Movietone newsreel titled “Everybody Joins the U.S. War Effort,” in which the narrator reports, “The country has asked the people to invest a billion dollars in one month to help pay for the war.” Burns said, “Everybody was involved. Today, we’re all independent free agents. We don’t give up anything.”

At the same time, Burn’s film depicts monumental disasters, such as the surrender of 78,000 American and Filipino troops to the Japanese at Bataan and the early defeats and embarrassments of the American forces in North Africa. “No one teaches that. We thought it was really important to tell the truth of what really happened,” he said.

One wonders if the American public could withstand such low points today. Burns has taken a painstakingly bipartisan approach to his project, appearing at the World War II Memorial in Washington and visiting the United States Military Academy in West Point three times. “Arthur Schlesinger Jr. said there’s too much pluribus and not enough unum,” Burns said, adding that his focus was on bringing Americans together.

Surprisingly, the patrons at Costco demonstrated grit when prodded about what their country could accomplish. Judy Kaz, who drove all the way from New Hampshire to purchase three signed copies of Burn’s book, said, “Americans are resilient people. We can do whatever it is we set out to do.”

I also asked Burns about a prior World War II documentary I liked, “The World at War.” Burns gave it credit, but said his was the first major documentary that handled the major events of the war in chronological order and simultaneously. For somebody walking into Costco not expecting an interview, Burns was great.

American Legion and VFW Are Relevant Once Again

May 29, 2007

It is one of the sad ironies of the Iraq War is that veterans organizations once thought to have all but outlived their usefulness are all too relevant once again. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, every small town in America had either an American Legion or VFW post on the edge of the community. With World War II veterans — the men who formed the backbone of these groups — dying off at a rate of 1000 a day, you might think these groups would be disappearing from the scene as well. But that isn’t happening.

In fact, the need to support the soldiers, sailors and marines returning home from Iraq, has caused these groups to return to their original mission — helping vets adjust to life at home and making sure they get adequate health care. We tend to forget today, but there was a day when the VFW and American Legion were something other than a place to find cameraderie and an affordable cold glass of beer. The VFW was founded after the Spanish American War and the Philippine Insurrection, which are roughly analagous to the initial invasion of Iraq and subsequent insurgency. The vets came back with strange diseases, malaria and yellow fever, among others, and needed help. So too the Legion, founded in Paris in 1919 amid tales of mistreatment of returned veterans.

I write about this development in my column in The New York Sun.

Bacevich on His Son’s Death

May 28, 2007

Here’s the link to Andrew Bacevich’s column on his son’s death in The Washington Post. He’s an angry man right now, and his piece reflects that. In the piece, he goes so far as to write sharply of the public officials who expressed condolences to him for his son’s death: “To whom do Kennedy, Kerry and Lynch listen? We know the answer: to the same people who have the ear of George W. Bush and Karl Rove — namely, wealthy individuals and institutions.” (I was proud to see John Kerry at Andy Bacevich’s funeral.) He adds: “Money buys access and influence. Money greases the process that will yield us a new president in 2008. When it comes to Iraq, money ensures that the concerns of big business, big oil, bellicose evangelicals and Middle East allies gain a hearing.”

Still, it is an emotional time. Tomorrow is Memorial Day. I spent the morning at the city’s observances at Mt. Hope Cemetery and just finished watching the National Memorial Day concert. My father participated in Memorial Day observances with Chapter 51 of the Special Forces Association at the Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City, Nevada. Bacevich, who is a skilled writer and knowledgable thinker, is acting in accordance with the pain of a father grieving over a son.

An Officer Is Remembered

May 22, 2007

Lt. Bacevich

Yesterday I drove down Route 1A for the funeral of Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich at St. Timothy’s Church. I described the scene in my New York Sun column. “Mourners sang “America the Beautiful” as pall bearers wheeled the casket carrying First Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich out of St. Timothy’s Church in Norwood, Mass., yesterday. Before exiting into the bright May sunshine and the sight of the soothing waters of Willett’s Pond, they paused and draped an American flag over the coffin.”

I’ve known Lt. Bacevich’s father, Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich, since 1998 when he helped author a study with Eliot Cohen about the possibility that Israel would eliminate universal service — one of the foundations of its civil society. While he once worked with Cohen, now an aide to Condoleezza Rice at the Department of State, Professor Bacevich is an independent thinker and an opponent of the Iraq War. But, as Jules Crittenden wrote in a moving piece in The Boston Herald, yesterday belonged to the professor’s son.

The younger Bacevich graduated with a degree in communications from Boston University and worked for Governor Romney. A patriot, he believed he had to give more to his country. Instead of working on a presidential campaign, Bacevich gave his life in Iraq.

Contributions can be sent to the First Lieutenant Andrew John Bacevich Memorial Fund at Boston University, Office of Development, Boston University, 1 Sherborn St., Boston, MA 02215.

March on the Pentagon: 2007

March 16, 2007

Many aspects of American life are starting to resemble forty years ago during the Vietnam War. In 1967, anti-war activists organized the March on the Pentagon, chronicled by Norman Mailer in “The Armies of the Night”. ““Others, using spray cans, crayons, paints and bush began to write slogans on the stone wall of the Mall, the pier, the sides of the ramp,” Mr. Mailer recorded. “ ‘WAR SUCKS’ went one of the signs, ‘PENTAGON SUCKS’ went another, ‘F— WAR’ went a third.”

This weekend, the ANSWER Coalition is planning a new March on the Pentagon. I write about it in a short story in The New York Sun.

But this year’s activities diverge from the 1960s in a key way. This year a group of veterans called, “A Gathering Eagles”, is planning a protest to support the troops and the cause for which they’re fighting. Originally billed as an effort to protect the Vietnam Memorial on the Mall, when it looked like ANSWER might hold its protest there, the demonstration is gathering steam. Thousands of participants are expected.

This is interesting on a number of fronts. First, the Iraq War, like prior wars is generating its own veterans’ groups. Much as the Spanish American War created the Veterans of Foreign Wars and World War I prompted the growth of the American Legion and the Bonus Army, Iraq is making itself felt on the homefront.

Second, the Gathering of Eagles will surely draw the ire of the anti-war crowd as pawns of the president. But one of their organizers, Col. Harry Riley (retired), was unafraid to speak up on conditions at Walter Reed. He told me in comments published here exclusively at

“Obviously there were some serious shortfalls up there. It’s obvious that they were not caring for the warriors the way they should.
The government has developed an attitude of use and abuse. That’s what happens to the military warrior. He gets called up. He may be wounded. He may be killed, and then he comes back and finds an apparatus that is illprepared to take care of him.”

The ANSWER spokesman, Bill Hackwell, a combat photographer in Vietnam, added that his protest would advocate on behalf a range of causes, other than the war — including Katrina victims and immigrant rights.

A Second Katrina

February 28, 2007

I just finished watching Bob Woodruff’s magnificent report on soldiers returning from Iraq. Woodruff’s report was, obviously, informed by his remarkable recovery. With the foundation of his experience — being a reporter who actually spent time at Walter Reed after a devastating brain injury– Woodruff performed a valiant piece of advocacy journalism.

Here’s what struck me. Woodruff grilled Jim Nicholson, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, on the more than 200,000 soldiers who have been treated at the VA. Nicholson’s answer was that many had been in “for dental care”.

As I former press secretary, I can tell you that’s the wrong answer. You have to fix the underlying problem. Minimizing the problem in such as laughable way, as Nicholson did on ABC, only backfires. The denial called to mind the executive branch’s refusal to acknowledge the problem at the Convention Center in New Orleans in 2005 even as the t.v. networks all had footage of it.

I’ve stated something over and over again. And I’ll say it one more time. We send men and women to war. We’ve got to stand by them when they come home.

That doesn’t just mean this year or next year. It means, in many cases, for the rest of their lives. That’s a patriotic duty for all of us.