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Is it McChrystal Clear? Our new General in the Middle East

By       Message Michael Galli     Permalink    (# of views)   1 comment

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September 7, 2009

On September 16, 1758, Samuel Johnson published an essay titled "The Vulture" in a London weekly called Universal Chronicle. On June 10, 2009, Stanley McChrystal was given the command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. On September 4, 2009, ten-year-old Mohammad Shafi was severely wounded by an American F-15.

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Johnson was a fascinating character. Plagued by what modern historians now think was Tourette syndrome, he managed to avoid both the insane asylum and debtor's prison to become one of Britain's most esteemed literati
[1]. When Johnson published his collection of Chronicle essays in book form in 1761, "The Vulture" was left to scavenge elsewhere. Britain was in the middle of its Seven Years War and Johnson's 1,100 word essay was considered "too seditions" for print. Why? It was an anti-war vignette [2] [3].

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A mother vulture reports to her children:

When I was young, I used frequently to visit the aerie of an old vulture, who had fed year after year on the entrails of men. His opinion was, that men had only the appearance of animal life, being really vegetables with a power of motion; and [are] driven one against another, till they lose their motion, that vultures may be fed. Others think they have observed something of contrivance and policy among these mischievous beings; and those that hover more closely round them, pretend, that there is, in every herd, one that gives directions to the rest, and seems to be more eminently delighted with a wide carnage. What it is that entitles him to such pre-eminence we know not; he is seldom the biggest or the swiftest, but he shows by his eagerness and diligence that he is, more than any of the others, a friend to the vultures [4].

The United States has just entered the third millenary of its own "Seven Years War" in Afghanistan and its new commander is not happy. It would seem that a number of Afghani civilians were killed this week by a "devastating" U.S. airstrike called in by German troops on the ground. USFOR-A (U.S. Forces Afghanistan) commander Stanley McChrystal visited the site two days later. Associated Press writer Jason Straziuso published a story on Saturday which reported that the General "waded a knee-deep river to inspect the charred remains of two fuel tankers destroyed in the Friday attack, which Afghan officials say killed about 70 people [5]." I wondered why Straziuso resurrected an iconic image of MacArthur for his story, but I suppose you could ask me why I have exhumed Samuel Johnson.

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In a 1758 Universal Chronicle essay later titled Corruption of news-writers, Johnson wrote:

In a time of war a nation is always of one mind, eager to hear something good of themselves and ill of the enemy. At this time the task of news-writers is easy: They have nothing to do but to tell that a battle is expected, and afterwards that a battle has been fought, in which we and our friends, whether conquering or conquered, did all, and our enemies did nothing [6].

McChrystal was upset that the Germans took so long to assess the damage after the U.S. bombing. As the military's top public affairs officer in Afghanistan, Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, puts it [7], "it's important to hold the ground after a strike and determine what happened before the enemy comes out with its own version of events [emphasis added] [8]." It was Johnson who wrote, "Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates, and credulity encourages," or, as it is now often expressed, "The first casualty of war is truth [9]."

From his hospital bed in Kundunz, ten-year-old bombing victim Mohammad Shafi told McChrystal, "I heard a big bang, and after that I don't know what happened." The General responded to the boy by uttering "tashakor," the Dari word for "thank you [10]." It's safe to assume that the "ascetic" General doesn't know much about the life of Shafi; understandably so - after all, the boy is only ten and "didn't exist" before the U.S. paid him a visit. It's doubtful that Shafi knows much about McChrystal either, but then, as strange as it may seem, neither do we, the people who have employed him for thirty-three years. In an article titled A General Steps from the Shadows the New York Times reports that much of what McChrystal has done for Uncle Sam "remains classified." In the report retired Maj. Gen. William Nash describes McChrystal as a "lanky, smart, tough ... sneaky stealth soldier [11]." McChrystal was "outed" three years earlier in a Newsweek piece titled The Hidden General. "He runs the most secretive force in the U.S. military," the article stated, "That is the Joint Special Operations Command, the snake-eating, slit-their-throats "black ops" guys ...JSOC is part of what Vice President Dick Cheney was referring to when he said America would have to "work the dark side" after 9/11 [12]."

It was McChrystal's command that ran Task-Force 6-26, a special unit charged with finding and killing HVTs (High Value Targets) in Iraq. The unit's slogan for those it captures alive? "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it." The New York Times reported that the unit "made one of the former Iraqi government's torture chambers into their own interrogation cell. They named it the Black Room. In the windowless, jet-black garage-size room, some soldiers beat prisoners with rifle butts, yelled and spit in their faces and, in a nearby area, used detainees for target practice in a game of jailer paintball
[13]." In a May issue of Slate Magazine Fred Kaplan wrote that 6-26's "interrogations were so harsh that five Army officers were convicted on charges of abuse [14]." McChrystal was not one of them. In fact, he received a promotion. The General was, however, implicated in the cover-up of former NFL player Pat Tillman's 2004 death by 'friendly fire [15]." The most inflammatory charge against the commander has been leveled by journalist Seymour Hersh who has described JSOC under McChrystal's tenure as operating an "executive assassination wing " going into countries, not talking to the ambassador or the CIA station chief, and finding people on a list and executing them and leaving [16] [17] [18]."

In retrospect, one could argue that it is a good thing that Mohammad Shafi didn't know anything about the man who paid him a bedside visit. Remember how creeped-out the world was by the video of Saddam Hussein beckoning five-year-old Brit Stuart Lockward to sit on his knee [19]?

I wonder how one says the word "truth" in Dari?


[1] Keymer 1999
The Life
The Idler
The Vulture
Civilian Deaths
Select Essays
U.S. Navy
U.S. German Rift
Select Essays
Civilian Deaths
A General
The Hidden
In Secret
It's Obama's
Controversial General
Investigative Reporter
Keith Olbermann
CNN Seymour
British Child


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Michael Galli is the Dean of Students at Rivendell Academy, a small 7-12 interstate public school on the New Hampshire / Vermont border, where he teaches classes on media and U.S. foreign policy.

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