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Tomgram: Ann Jones, In Bed With the U.S. Army

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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As the Wikileaks document-dump week ends, perhaps the real significance of what happened lay not in the specific revelations in those 92,000 pieces of raw data from American frustration-ville in Afghanistan, 2004-2009 (much of which would have been no news to anyone reading TomDispatch all these years). It may simply be that, for the second time in a month -- the first being the McChrystal firing/Petraeus hiring -- the war that time forgot has burst onto the front pages of American newspapers and made it to the top of the TV news as a runaway story.

Given an increasingly unpopular war, the headlines spell bad news for Washington. Pakistani double-crosses, Taliban surges, Afghan corruption, the woeful state of the American-trained Afghan army and police, and -- a subject far less emphasized in U.S. than British coverage-- the unreported killing or wounding of large numbers of civilians by U.S. forces (as well as cover-ups of the same) are not what the Obama administration would have chosen for the week's war news. The U.S. war effort was already visibly stumbling and desperately in need of continuing anonymity, so all-consuming news, including reports on spiking American and NATO deaths, certainly wasn't on the Obama wish list. And it's not just the public either. As reporter Jim Lobe notes, the Wikileaks story "can only add to the pessimism that has spread from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party to the heart of the foreign policy establishment, and even to a growing number of Republicans."

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The release of these documents has certainly not helped bolster NATO allies, whose citizens are ever more eager to head for the exits in Afghanistan. But in all this, one thing -- quite unnoted -- has been missing: what these events have looked like through Afghan eyes. However striking the Wikileaks revelations may have been, in one way at least they paralleled the coverage we've seen for years. These documents came from relatively low-level American military and intelligence officers and largely reflect the war as seen through American eyes. What they deliver -- potentially devastatingly -- is U.S. military frustration over a situation that has long been going from bad to worse. In this morass of reports, not surprisingly, Afghans play a distinctly collateral role.

Reading these documents, we remain, as is generally the case in our news reports, embedded with Americans in the field, viewing a treacherous Afghan (and Pakistani) minefield of a world. TomDispatch regular Ann Jones approaches Afghanistan and the American war effort from quite a different perspective. She's proven a rarity in the way she's reported back to us in these years. She arrived in Kabul in 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, to work with Afghan women on their problems. Unlike almost any other American who wrote about the experience, she embedded herself in an Afghan world.

Her moving book Kabul in Winter offered us a window into Afghan lives and worries, not American ones. Now, she's arrived at a U.S. military base, bringing Afghan eyes with her. Among all the reporters who have embedded with the U.S. military, that may make her unique -- so prepare yourself for a look at the American way of war on the ground that won't be like anything you've read. By the way, in Jones's new book,War Is Not Over When It's Over(to be published in September), she embeds herself with women who have suffered through trauma and nightmare in other global combat zones. It's not to be missed. Tom

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Here Be Dragons
MRAPs, Sprained Ankles, Air Conditioning, Farting Contests, and Other Snapshots from the American War in Afghanistan

By Ann Jones

In the eight years I've reported on Afghanistan, I've "embedded" regularly with Afghan civilians, especially women. Recently, however, with American troops "surging" and journalists getting into the swing of the military's counterinsurgency "strategy" (better known by its acronym, COIN), I decided to get with the program as well. Last June, I filed a request to embed with the U.S. Army.

Polite emails from Army public affairs specialists ask journalists to provide evidence of medical insurance, a requirement I took as an admission that war is not a healthy pursuit. I already knew that, of course -- from the civilian side. Plus I'd read a lot of articles and books by male colleagues who had risked their necks with American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. What struck me about their work was this: even when they described screw-ups coming down from the top brass, those reporters still managed to make the soldierly enterprise sound pretty consistently heroic. I wondered what they might be leaving out.

So I sent in a scan of my Medicare card. I worried that this evidence of my senior citizenship, coupled with my membership in the "weaker sex," the one we're supposedly rescuing in Afghanistan, would raise questions about my fitness for missions "outside the wire" of a Forward Operating Base (FOB, pronounced "fob") in eastern Afghanistan only a few miles from the tribal areas of Pakistan. But no, I got my requested embed -- proof of neither fitness nor heroism required (something my male colleagues had never revealed). In the end, my age and gender were no handicap. As Agatha Christie's Miss Marple knows, people will say almost anything to an old lady they assume to be stupid.

Boys and Their Toys

Having been critical of American policies from the get-go, I saw nothing on the various Army bases I visited to change my mind. One day at that FOB, preparing to go on a mission, the sergeant in charge wrote the soldiers' names on the board, followed by "Terp" to designate the Afghan-American interpreter who would accompany us, and "In Bed," which meant me. He made a joke about reporters who are more gung-ho than soldiers. Not me. And I wasn't alone. I had already met a lot of older guys on other bases, mostly reservists who had jobs at home they felt passionately about -- teachers, coaches, musicians -- and wives and children they loved, who just wanted to go home. One said to me, "Maybe if I were ten years younger I could get into it, but I'm not a boy anymore."

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The Army had sent me a list of ground rules for reporters -- mostly commonsense stuff like don't print troop strength or battle plans.I also got a checklist of things to bring along. It was the sort of list moms get when sending their kids off to camp: water bottle, flashlight, towel, soap, toilet paper (for those excursions away from base), sleeping bag, etc. But there was other stuff too: ballistic eyewear, fireproof gloves, big knife, body armor, and Kevlar helmet. Considering how much of my tax dollar goes to the Pentagon, I thought the Army might have a few spare flak jackets to lend to visiting reporters, but no, you have to bring your own.

That was perhaps a sign of things to come, as I was soon swamped by complaints from soldiers and civilian contractors alike: not enough armor, not enough vehicles, not enough helicopters, not enough weapons, not enough troops -- and even when there seemed to be plenty of everything, complaints that nothing was of quite the right kind. This struck me as a peculiarly privileged American problem that seemed to underlie almost everything I was to see on the eastern front of this war. Those complaints, in fact, seemed to spring from the very nature of the American military enterprise -- from its toxic mix of paranoia, entitlement, and good intentions.

Take the paranoia, which I suppose comes with the territory. You wouldn't be there if you didn't think that there were enemies all around. I turned down a military flight for the short hop from the Afghan capital Kabul to Bagram, the main American base -- a rapidly expanding "city" of more than 30,000 people. Instead, I asked an Afghan friend to drive me out in his car.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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