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Tomgram: Danny Sjursen, Mad Policies for a Mad World

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

What's the value of an American life in the age of Donald Trump? If you were judging by the death of Nawres Hamid, an Iraqi-American contractor killed in late December after an American base in Iraq was mortared by a Shiite militia believed to have ties to Iran, the answer would be obvious: enough to risk war. After all, the president cited Hamid's death in going after that militia and then drone-assassinating Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani. In response to the mortar attack, U.S. air strikes in Iraq and Syria killed at least 25 Iraqi militia fighters and then, as January began, that drone strike near Baghdad International Airport took out a figure who was often considered the number-two man in Iran, as well as its possible future leader. In addition, it killed an Iraqi militia commander and eight other people.

So you might say that the president considers any American death under such circumstances worth not just 35 Iraqis and Iranians, but the possibility of adding in a significant way to America's forever wars (that he's long denounced). Of course, you would have to reach a different conclusion if you considered the deaths in early January of an American soldier and two American contractors at an airport in Kenya after an attack by the Somali terror group al-Shabaab. In that case, there was no obvious response at all, not even a comment from the president. And the same would be true of the two dead and two wounded U.S. soldiers whose vehicle recently ran over a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan (deaths immediately claimed by the Taliban). Again, neither a comment nor a response from you-know-who.

In other words, as TomDispatch regular and retired U.S. Army Major Danny Sjursen points out today, who can be surprised that, in the age of Trump, this country's forever wars are also a chaos machine? If you're looking at the non-American dead, of course, that's been so since the beginning. After all, the U.S. military has taken out one wedding after another across the Greater Middle East since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and it's counted for nothing, mattered not at all. And the slaughter of civilians never ends. Only recently, for instance, in an attack in Afghanistan that killed a Taliban commander and some of the militants under his command, U.S. air strikes also reportedly killed at least 60 civilians, including women and children. And in the Trump era, although we know that civilian casualties have been rising in Washington's ever-spreading war zones, a penumbra of secrecy has fallen over such deaths. American air strikes against al-Shabaab in Somalia, for instance, rose dramatically in 2019, but we have almost no idea how many civilians died in the process. (Rest assured that they did, though.)

Now, take a moment, with Sjursen, to consider just what it's meant for a "true stable genius" to inherit such an unstable killing machine. Tom

The American Chaos Machine
U.S. Foreign Policy Goes Off the Rails
By Danny Sjursen

In March 1906, on the heels of the U.S. Army's massacre of some 1,000 men, women, and children in the crater of a volcano in the American-occupied Philippines, humorist Mark Twain took his criticism public. A long-time anti-imperialist, he flippantly suggested that Old Glory should be redesigned "with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones."

I got to thinking about that recently, five years after I became an antiwar dissenter (while still a major in the U.S. Army), and in the wake of another near-war, this time with Iran. I was struck yet again by the way every single U.S. military intervention in the Greater Middle East since 9/11 has backfired in wildly counterproductive ways, destabilizing a vast expanse of the planet stretching from West Africa to South Asia.

Chaos, it seems, is now Washington's stock-in-trade. Perhaps, then, it's time to resurrect Twain's comment -- only today maybe those stars on our flag should be replaced with the universal symbol for chaos.

After all, our present administration, however unhinged, hardly launched this madness. President Trump's rash, risky, and repugnant decision to assassinate Iranian Major General Qassem Suleimani on the sovereign soil of Iraq was only the latest version of what has proven to be a pervasive state of affairs. Still, that and Trump's other recent escalations in the region do illustrate an American chaos machine that's gone off the rails. And the very manner -- I'm loathe to call it a "process" -- by which it's happened just demonstrates the way this president has taken American chaos to its dark but logical conclusion.

The Goldilocks Method

Any military officer worth his salt knows full well the importance of understanding the basic psychology of your commander. President George W. Bush liked to call himself "the decider," an apt term for any commander. Senior leaders don't, as a rule, actually do that much work in the traditional sense. Rather, they hobnob with superiors, buck up unit morale, evaluate and mentor subordinates, and above all make key decisions. It's the operations staff officers who analyze problems, present options, and do the detailed planning once the boss blesses or signs off on a particular course of action.

Though they may toil thanklessly in the shadows, however, those staffers possess immense power to potentially circumscribe the range of available options and so influence the future mission. In other words, to be a deft operations officer, you need to know your commander's mind, be able translate his sparse guidance, and frame his eventual choice in such a manner that the boss leaves a "decision briefing" convinced the plan was his own. Believe me, this is the actual language military lifers use to describe the tortured process of decision-making.

In 2009, as a young captain, fresh out of Baghdad, Iraq, I spent two unfulfilling, if instructive, years enmeshed in exactly this sort of planning system. As a battalion-level planner, then assistant, and finally a primary operations officer, I observed this cycle countless times. So allow me to take you "under the hood" for some inside baseball. I -- and just about every new staff officer -- was taught to always provide the boss with three plans, but to suss out ahead of time which one he'd choose (and, above all, which one you wanted him to choose).

Confident in your ability to frame his choices persuasively, you'd often even direct your staffers to begin writing up the full operations order before the boss's briefing took place. The key to success was what some labeled the Goldilocks method. You'd always present your commander with a too-cautious option, a too-risky option, and a "just-right" course of action. It nearly always worked.

I did this under the command of two very different lieutenant colonels. The first was rational, ethical, empathetic, and tactically competent. He made mission planning easy on his staff. He knew the game as well as we did and only pretended to be fooled. He built relationships with his senior operations officers over the course of months, thereby revealing his preferred methods, tactical predilections, and even personal learning style. Then he'd give just enough initial guidance -- far more than most commanders -- to set his staff going in a reasonably focused fashion.

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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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