It's been just over 5 years since the start of the Iraq war, and we've just passed another of those morbid little milestones that get so much attention in the press. This particular milestone has a nice round number on it - 4,000 - which apparently makes it somehow more important, or significant, or something than less neat numbers like 2526, or 3981, or 1135. The media's spent a little while circling over the battlefield, waiting for the 4,000th American corpse to hit the ground. The milestone arrived and passed more or less on schedule, and the media will settle back down and wait for the next round number. But these numbers, round or otherwise are nonsense. They're worse than meaningless. They allow us to care about this war on cue for some fraction of a news cycle. But by the time we've gone to the fridge, grabbed a beer, and slapped our fat asses back down on the sofa, things have moved on to the story of the drug-addled starlet's custody fight with her 5th ex-husband. In six or seven months, when the number's climbed to another round increment, the press will spare a few more minutes of air time and remind us to care again briefly. Between now and then, most of the deaths will be back below the fold on page A-39.
Somehow or another, I doubt that the parents of the 3683rd soldier to die are somehow injured less than the parents of the 4,000th. I doubt that the parents of the 4010th will feel any differently. And, of course, American soldiers aren't the only ones who have died in the course of this disaster. We don't know how many Iraqis have died. Every estimate that's been published so far has been the subject of some controversy, because the different estimates aren't in complete agreement with each other. After five years, the whole country is still so comprehensively screwed that it's not possible to safely conduct the censuses and surveys needed to come up with an answer that everyone can agree with. The survivors of the family that becomes the collateral damage from an American air strike don't mourn any less than the family of the American soldier killed by friendly fire.
Every single person who has died in this war leaves behind a hole. Their absence is felt by their families, by their friends, by their colleagues, no matter who they were or why they fought.
And those aren't the only holes that are left.
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It's safe to say that 2007 wasn't the best year of US Army 1st Lt. Elizabeth Whiteside's life. She started off the year with a bullet wound to her torso that damaged, among other things, one lung, her liver, and her spleen. She ended her year as an outpatient at Walter Reed, waiting for her superiors to decide whether or not she would have to stand court-martial for inflicting that wound upon herself. In between, she had to recover from her physical wounds, learn to deal with the inner demons that led to them, she had to deal with superior officers who believed that she would be more appropriately handled as a criminal than a patient, and cope with a system that constantly threatened soldiers with mental illness with discharge and no benefits. It's not entirely clear that 2008 is going to be a better year for her. On Tuesday, the Army announced that they were dropping all charges against her. At the time of that announcement, she was in intensive care, recovering from a second failed attempt to take her own life.
In the note that she wrote before swallowing whatever pills she had around her, she said that she was "very disappointed in the Army". It's hard to find any reason for her not to be disappointed. The Army's treatment of her has been absolutely abysmal. Unfortunately, the same can be said for many other soldiers and veterans. Although the Army has been working to improve mental health care, the system is not where it needs to be, and faces no shortage of hurdles along the way.
According to the December 2, 2007 Washington Post article that first presented Lt. Whiteside's case to the public, there were a number of things that happened in Iraq that may have contributed to her mental illness and suicide attempt. I'm not going attempt to discuss that, or, for that matter, the exact actions she took in Iraq that her commanders at Walter Reed felt were so egregious as to warrant criminal prosecution. No matter what happened in Iraq, the things that happened when she returned to Walter Reed very clearly demonstrate some of the problems that the Army is having when it comes to handling mental health issues.
The problem that Lt. Whiteside's case illustrates most clearly involves the attitude that too many career combat arms officers have toward soldiers with mental health issues: they're an excuse, not an illness.
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I am certainly no fan of the Iraq war, but I found it difficult to read the media reports about retired Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez's recent comments on the war without getting angry. Reading the full text of his remarks took me from anger to outrage. As good as it is to hear an unvarnished, blunt assessment of the situation from someone who, as a former commander of the forces in Iraq, is very familiar with what happens there, I'm left wondering where the hell he was before he gave his little talk.
Let's look at some of what the little pissant had to say:
Since 2003, the politics of war have been characterized by partisanship as the Republican and Democratic parties struggled for power in Washington. National efforts to date have been corrupted by partisan politics that have prevented us from devising effective, executable, supportable solutions. At times, these partisan struggles have led to political decisions that endangered the lives of our sons and daughters on the battlefield. The unmistakable message was that political power had greater priority than our national security objectives. Overcoming this strategic failure is the first step toward achieving victory in Iraq - without bipartisan cooperation we are doomed to fail. There is nothing going on today in Washington that would give us hope.
Partisan politics, according to Sanchez, have been endangering the lives of the troops since 2003. It's 2007. Why the hell didn't the man speak up before now? Where the hell has he been for the last several years? I'll tell you where: from the time he left Iraq in 2004 until he retired late last year, he was in Germany, sitting on his worthless ass behind the desk of V Corps - rear, sulking about Abu Ghraib having denied him the opportunity to get that fourth star that he believed was rightfully his. He sat on his ass in a dead-end job for two whole years, hoping that Abu Ghraib would go away and he would get that fourth shiny star, remaining silent about problems in Washington that he now says were endangering the lives of troops on the battlefield.
It's doubtful, of course, that one more voice of reason - even a voice as authoritative as his - would have kept the White House from pursuing the war. But at least he could have tried, instead of sitting there selfishly waiting for the promotion that never came.
A little after 7 am on 27 November, 2004, Lt. Colonel Michael McMahon and Chief Warrant Officer Travis Grogan boarded a small twin-engine airplane in Bagram, Afghanistan. The plane, which also had a cargo of 400 pounds of mortar illumination rounds, was operated by Presidential Airways, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Blackwater USA. Grogan was an experienced pilot assigned to the 3rd Squadron of the 4th Cavalry Regiment (the 3/4 Cav). McMahon was the 3/4ths commanding officer. At around 7:30, the plane stopped on the taxiway and a third passenger, 21-year old Specialist Harley Miller (also assigned to the 3/4 Cav), boarded the flight. The plane then departed Bagram for Farah, where the 3/4th was based.
Prior to takeoff, the crew informed the tower that they'd be taking off and heading to the south, flying at an altitude of 10,000 feet above sea level. Immediately after takeoff, however, the plane turned to the northwest. The flight left radar coverage shortly thereafter, still traveling on a heading other than the one that they had announced. The flight never arrived in Farah. Approximately 45 minutes into the flight, the airplane hit the side of a mountain at an altitude of approximately 14,650 feet above sea level. Five of the six people on board apparently died on impact. The sixth passenger, SPC Miller, survived the impact. He stepped outside the wreckage at least twice, unrolled a sleeping bag, and smoked a last cigarette or two before finally dying, alone on the mountainside in the wreckage while search parties scoured the wrong valley, at least ten hours after the crash as a result of a combination of his injuries, hypoxia, and hypothermia.
The transcript taken from the voice recorder gives some indication of why this crash might have happened.
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Every time I read articles (like this one, this one, this one or this one) that talk about how the Democrats are having problems getting the 60 votes in the Senate that they need to move Iraq legislation forward, or how they won't be able to get the 2/3rds of both houses that they need to beat a veto, I get angrier. And not with the Republicans who are standing in the way.
The Democrats don't need more than a majority. The President can't spend money unless Congress lets him spend money. If Congress passes a spending bill and he vetoes it, he can't spend money. If Congress fails to pass a spending bill at all, he can't spend money. All the Democrats need to do is stand their ground and refuse to pass any spending bill that doesn't require a firm timetable. That's all that they need to do.
The problem that we've got isn't overcoming Republican resistance. It's the spine of the Democratic leadership. They don't have one. They don't even have shells. I'd call them jellyfish, but even jellyfish can inflict a painful sting. No, we're talking sea cucumbers here - they've got no hard support, and if you stress one too much it reacts by expelling its internal organs all over you.
We've got to stop letting them slide. They're in the majority now, and that means that they shouldn't be able to get off the hook by claiming to be impotent in the face of the big bad Republicans. They've got the support of the public. They need to act like it if they want to retain it.