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Are Petraeus and Westmoreland Birds of a Feather?

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The killing in Hawijah, Iraq of 18-year old Corporal Jeremy Shank of Jackson, Missouri (population 12,000) merited an article in the Southeast Missourian. Cpl. Shank was killed on Sept. 6, 2006 and I was in that part of Missouri when his body came home for burial. According to the Pentagon, Shank was on a “dismounted security patrol when he encountered enemy forces using small arms.”

Cpl. Shank’s death came two years after President George W. Bush greeted then-Prime Minister Iyad Allawi at the White House, proudly announcing “months of steady progress” toward a free Iraq, despite persistent violence in some parts of the country. His death came two weeks after national security adviser Stephen Hadley acknowledged that the mid-2006 upsurge in violence meant that the new challenge in Iraq “isn’t about insurgency, isn’t about terror; it’s about sectarian violence.” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki underscored the point, “The most important element in the security plan is to curb the religious violence.”

So what was the mission of Cpl. Shank while on security patrol, and who were the “enemy forces” he encountered? Was his mission to prevent Iraqi religious fanatics from killing each other?

On Sept. 7, 2006, the day after Shank was killed, President Bush in effect mocked Jeremy Shank’s death by drawing the familiar but bogus connection to 9/11:

“Five years after September the 11th, 2001, America is safer—and America is winning the war on terror [and] will leave behind a more peaceful world for our children and our grandchildren.”

Not for children, grandchildren of Jeremy Shank.

Put Themselves in Harm’s Way?

At the First Baptist Church in Jackson, Rev. Carter Frey eulogized Shank as one of those who “put themselves in harm’s way and paid the ultimate sacrifice so you and I can have freedom to live in this country.” That was a stretch—a staple of FOX and other “news,” but, still, a stretch. And I have been asking myself in the year since how many young men and women like Jeremy Shank have been, and will be killed trying to stop Shia and Sunni from killing one another. A few weeks after Shank’s death, President Bush described “our job” as being “to prevent the full-scale civil war from happening.”

Was/is that the mission? And is it worth what is so facilely called the “ultimate sacrifice,” or the penultimate one—tens of thousand veterans trying to adjust to life without arm or leg?

Is it quite correct to say they put themselves in harm’s way? Or was it their commander in chief who put them in harm’s way? Is it truly possible that he remains determined to keep treating our young men and women as disposable soldiers for the rest of his term? And will those in Congress who are supposed to represent those young men and women go along with that? Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was entirely correct when she insisted in a recent op-ed that the “threshold question in any war is: What are we fighting for? Our troops, especially, deserve a convincing answer.”

The sacrifices of Shank and his family and others and their families are being mocked by glib sloganeering.

Decision Time

Today is Sept. 7, 2007, a year and a day since Cpl. Shank was killed. In a few weeks we will know where the small-town Shanks of America stand in the priorities of members of the House and Senate. As far as the president is concerned...well, he does not seem to be very concerned at all. They should simply smile appreciatively as he presents them with a rubber turkey, and then populate the backdrop for photo-ops.

More unconscionable still, those Shanks clearly sit low on the priority lists of those senior generals who command them—generals like the sainted David Petraeus, smart enough to know the war cannot be won, but not courageous enough to come out and say it. The Shanks are merely what we used to call “warm bodies” to throw into the fight.

For many of us with some gray in our hair, we’ve seen it all before—and, ironically enough, exactly 40 years ago. What Gen. David Petraeus has set in motion, or at least condoned, is the massaging of data to justify what his boss, President Bush, wants to do in Iraq; namely, to keep enough troops “in the fight” in order to stave off definitive defeat before he and Vice President Dick Cheney leave office in January 2009. That’s what the “surge” is all about, and Petraeus is smart enough to know that only too well.

Like his apparent role model, Colin Powell, he can bear four stars on his shoulder, but he must also bear on his conscience thousands of dead and wounded Shanks as a result of his eagerness to play in the Bush/Cheney charade. A more precise counterpart to Gen. Petraeus is the late Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of our forces in Vietnam. The argument over whether or not the “surge” is working brings back un-fond memories of the deliberate smoke-and-mirrors approach Westmoreland forced on intelligence analysts in Saigon—and Washington—including deliberate falsification of the numbers on enemy strength.

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Ray McGovern works with Tell the Word, the publishing arm of the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in inner-city Washington. He was an Army infantry/intelligence officer and then a CIA analyst for 27 years, and is now on the Steering Group of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS). His (more...)
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