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    "The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts" ~ George Orwell





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    Monday, October 18, 2004

    Raising Pure Hell


    The story in the Oct. 25th issue of Newsweek about the 343d Quartermaster company, a reserve unit in Iraq which unanimously decided to refuse orders is not untrue. It is not a lie, but the way it is written deserves some critical thinking in my opinion. I think it is written in such a way as to leave you with a certain impression. That is fine, because that is exactly what a free society allows for and why I believe this country is great. I would like to rationally state my impressions for anyone who is interested.

    This story really starts off with a Drama In Real Life Moment:

    Oct. 25 issue - The first call came at 5:30 a.m., when Teresa Hill was asleep in her Dothan, Ala., home. Too groggy to move, she let the answering machine pick it up. "Hi, Mom. It's me, Amber. This is a real, real big emergency. I need you to contact someone. I mean, raise pure hell." Still half asleep, Hill listened as her daughter, a reservist with the 343d Quartermaster Company stationed in Iraq, explained in a shaking voice that she and 18 other soldiers in her platoon were being held under armed guard. All had refused to go on a dangerous mission to deliver jet fuel. "We had broken-down trucks, nonarmored vehicles ... They are holding us against our will. We are prisoners. I need you now, Mom. I need you so bad. Please, just please help me. I love you, Mom. This is very serious. I will call as soon as I can."


    I defy anyone to imagine a good mother doing anything except what she did, but let's remember Amber volunteered to be in the military as an adult. Remember that recently this country has had a large debate over whether Amber should be allowed(not necessarily on the strength of how good Amber is at soldiering) to be a soldier. I don't ascribe any kind of motives to her service, because I don't know her or a thing about her military record. It is quite likely she joined like many did; for the benefits to her as much as any benefits to her country that she was willing to give when she signed up. I just think it's important to remember that in the overall scheme of things, society had decided that it was ok for Amber to be in the military, deployed in harm's way as a soldier and she did too. I'm presuming only that she did what she thought was best at the time as a good person. Remember that, because I'm about to be consistent with that presumption across the board. The mother, Teresa Hill, occupies the second paragraph:


    Jolted awake, Hill reached for the phone. But the answering-machine tape had cut out, ending the call. A moment later, Hill's cell phone rang. It was Amber. She continued her story, telling her mother that she and other insubordinate soldiers were being interrogated. One officer was even scaring them with grave talk of mutiny.


    Well, I am not an expert in military law. But mutiny doesn't sound like a charge I would dismiss out of hand at the early part of sorting all of this out if I were an officer trying to get to the bottom of things. I don't know how you deal with things when people who should do what you say don't do what you say, but the military has pretty sharp codes on the matter. Note that the trouble they are having with communication originated from Teresa not picking up the phone. A mere minute later Amber was ringing mom's cell phone and got in touch.

    So while some officer probably did bring up possible charges of mutiny in the course of questioning the participants...be careful when you conjure up a picture in your mind upon hearing the words 'interrogated' and 'grave talk'. I don't think a military investigation of a soldier compares to an interrogation as you would think of interrogating people in Guantanamo Bay, for instance. If it really was a dumb thing to have Amber and her pals from the fightin' 343d run that mission(it seems to have been in at least a few valid ways) then I hope there is only a small penalty to pay for 'raising pure hell' instead of finding a better solution in the middle of the conflict that brought on the 'mutiny'. Again, I don't know if I can blame Amber. The only way to find this out is to investigate. The article then goes on:

    Word of the incident spread quickly through the ranks—and to other relatives in the United States, who are now demanding to know exactly what happened. In a statement, the Army called the episode a "temporary breakdown in discipline," and praised the 343 as "an experienced company that has performed honorable service for nearly nine months in Iraq." The soldiers involved have been released. Some are being transferred to other units. According to relatives, others may receive undesirable general discharges and two were knocked down a peg in rank. But that isn't likely to be the end of it.


    It seems to me that all parties involved want to know exactly what happened. In fact, that was what the interrogation was for, right? They were demanding to know what happened. These were human beings trying to figure out what happened so that the right action could be taken. The big picture that was going on around the action or inaction of this company which has served honorably in general is not easily graspable even for these human beings investigating. Remember that. The parents demanding to know exactly what happened are acting as good people, but I think they are asking a bit much if they want to raise pure hell while everyone is trying to calmly and rationally determine justice. The big picture I think I have might not match yours and neither of us likely know enough to pin the big picture on any one man or thing.

    The story here says that all involved have had some sort of punishment for their inaction, and they don't seem to have been too horrible punishments. The 'grave talk' of mutiny charges were never brought, they were all released and the action of insubordination dealt with, the severity of which I presume to be based on responsibility in the event of insubordination. The real terror of being killed or captured by the insurgents in a mistaken clusterf*** is understandable. But the lede of this story sure made it sound like Amber wanted word to get out that she had narrowly escaped certain death and that no one cared a tiny bit, and what's worse is they decided she was an Enemy of the State. And we've all seen that movie.

    Look. The guy who ordered them to go on this mission had a big picture in mind too, and he may or may not have made a mistake in the process of trying to achieve goals. I know driving a crappy truck filled with jet fuel down an Iraqi road seems like a very dangerous thing to do to me, especially with the few circumstances given in this article.

    I grant that these circumstances are not on their own, and taken together, good ones. But again, I can't think of many things a soldier is going to be told to do are going to be a)pleasant or b)under good circumstances. I know that the army is not filled with faceless robots; it is filled with good, but flawed people who grew up around you. Flawed, but generally doing the best thing they can think of doing under the circumstances. Before I commit to thinking that Amber has been a victim of malice by her government and not the incompetence of some people and some systems, I want to know more. The article begins outlining some(key word there. some.) of the circumstances here:

    The trouble began early last week, when the platoon was delivering a load of jet fuel to another base 10 hours away. It's risky work. Fuel trucks are large, slow targets for insurgents, who regularly hit convoys with gunfire and roadside bombs. The troops accompanying the tankers often sit in unarmored, open-bed trucks, making them easy targets themselves


    I have to say, it does sound like risky work. I don't know that insurgents regularly hit convoys. They seem to do it irregularly and without a huge amount of success relative to the number of insurgents being killed in fighting. A jet fuel convoy would be as likely as any other convoy to get targeted, and so some allowance for the risk can be made and maybe the mission wasn't 'suicide' exactly. If the troops are easy targets in those vehicles with a jet fuel truck in the mix, they are easy targets wherever they go. So there's more to the story, which complicates things.
    The story lists even more complications in the next paragraph:

    The troops made it to the base unharmed, but there was a problem. The fuel was rejected when tests showed it had been contaminated. So the truckers had to turn around and head back with the load. Along the way, they told family members, they were ambushed by insurgents but escaped unharmed. When they got back to base, the soldiers were told not to unload their equipment. According to relatives' accounts, they were ordered to go early the next morning and deliver the same fuel to a base in Taji, a dangerous 220-mile trip.


    OK, so the contaminated fuel is a real problem here. No one has said how and why that happened, but its safe to just say that no one immediately involved in the situation is at fault here. This causes a whole lot of problem, this rejected load. It probably threw more plans out of whack than simply what 343d company had to deal with, and allowances need to be made everywhere now for human beings making decisions towards accomplishing goals in a system of rules.

    While the unexpected is to be expected, when it happens human beings take over for systems, at least for some decisions. It seems unfortunate, but I can see why this single thing changed the way the big picture looked to each actor, and understand that the circumstances surrounding the decisions made were not all made with Amber's safety and comfort first in mind. Those types of decisions lie closer in the chain of command directly above Amber, and again an investigation is proper to determine if his decisions were just or not. Risky work...

    Here again in the narrative there seems to be another contradiction in the narrative. The slow moving convoy was attacked by irregular insurgents, yet suffered no casualties or damage. So, it may also be said that jet fuel convoys were not 'easy targets', at least in this situation. Clearly that does not abate the danger of any mission with jet fuel involved, but it is not necessary to believe that anyone unduly discounted the risk to Amber out of any disregard for Amber. It seems more likely that certain things had to be accomplished and a good person who while commanding his people on a dangerous battlefield did not see the mission as unattainable. This may or may not have been a correct assessment.

    Then the company is told that early the next morning the contaminated fuel will be needed for whatever reason(the article does not say why) at Taji. I don't know anything about the road to Tajiq except that it is a dangerous 220 mile trip. I don't know if it is more or less dangerous than the trip just taken but that trip was made with incident and no one got hurt. I am reluctant to believe that the military just arbitrarily decided to send the fuel to Taji. If it was because thats where it needed to go, pronto, so that the big picture didn't get too screwed up by the whole load being contaminated, then I could buy that. It sucks that suddenly that became necessary, but I can imagine at least the idea that it was in order to keep more chaos from reigning.

    A large constraint like that needs to be solved quickly, in general terms. I mean, they can't just pour it out and be done with it. They can't set aside the truck as a storage facility either. Can't put contaminated fuel back in the tank, and I don't know much about the standards of the rejection. Was it possible that the fuel was still good, yet rejected by a cautious, by-the-book system at one base but maybe not at another? I am not suggesting this is so, but merely thinking of situations in which human decision can disagree, and the system is set up to the most cautious standards. As I hope you'll agree, cautious standards are proper but not always fully realistic.

    Taji is near north Baghdad, and there have been insurgent attacks there. No doubt this was a dangerous drive. The article goes on to further erode a defense of the military:

    Then came the really bad news: no helicopter escort would be available to protect them. According to family members, a few of the soldiers spoke up. They explained they were worn out, and that their truck was unsafe; it had broken down four times during the last mission. They also thought the trip didn't make sense. The fuel had already been turned down once, and would likely be refused again. But they were ordered to go anyway. The platoon—19 troops in all—refused.


    This part of the article really does make the idea of going to Taji sound like a bad one. While I can't say whether the helicopter was actually crucial to the mission, I can see why the information would demoralize the unit. In fact these are all demoralizing things. If these circumstances were a bad bet for the lives of our soldiers then corrections should be made across the board. I understand why the whole thing could be demoralizing, especially to the uninformed and scared human being, like Amber. It may have looked like a dumb way to go about things. But that's not their call, in the end either.

    If it turns out that waiting a bit for a more robustly armed and repaired convoy could have been an option, then a commander at some level made a bad decision. A good human being, mind you. A bad decision in an imperfect system. It may also be that insubordination was the only way to point this out. I don't know. At some point you have to trust the system again, and do your own part for your justice. The article continues on about another man involved:

    In a phone call home, Spc. Justin Rogers recounted the incident to his grandfather Harold Casey: "I just kept telling them, 'I'm not going to deliver contaminated fuel that's going to cost other men their lives'," Rogers told him. Spc. Aaron Gordon e-mailed his mother, Kathy Harris, on Tuesday night, worried about his future. "He was basically asking me what could happen, the penalties that would come if he refused to accept the mission," she says.


    I trust Spc. Rogers at his word that he is a good person who believed that delivering contaminated fuel would cost other men their lives and so declined to assist in its delivery. I don't know all the facts though, and I don't know if he is referring generally to people losing their lives delivering it or also to the idea that the contaminated fuel itself was going to cause loss of life down the line due to its poor quality and was therefore not worth risking his life or the lives of his comrades. It is still entirely possible that the trip would have been made not only without incident, but with incident but no casualties had they accepted the mission. But the unexpected happens, and good people make choices which have consequences. That's life all over the place. Here the article turns to examining the bigger picture of troop morale, because it is time to wrap up and give some perspective:

    Battlefield "refusals" aren't uncommon in wartime, and this incident involved only a handful of soldiers out of 55,200 reservists in the country. The Army seemed to go out of its way to be conciliatory, saying the wayward soldiers raised "valid concerns." That may reflect concern among the brass that the story will resonate among reservists, who are increasingly uneasy about long deployments and high casualties. A recent study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that six out of 10 regular troops say they were properly trained and equipped before going to Iraq; but only four of every 10 Guard and Reserve troops think they had what they needed. As time goes on, confidence may drop further, a problem that vexes the Pentagon. In the words of one officer, "What everyone wonders, of course, is whether this is an isolated incident or the pebble which starts the avalanche."


    The first part of this paragraph seems to say that all things considered, what happened here isn't unusual. I think that unless you count the speed at which the news travelled to the outside world and forces were marshalled to justly resolve things(by all sides) this is undoubtedly true. The Army may have seemed to go out of its way to be conciliatory, but speculation as to why seems like a reach to me. That the Army actually said the soldiers raised 'valid' concerns should buy them at least credit for saying so, but the authors insert here the notion that the good human beings involved otherwise would have done...well they don't say. One hopes they aren't implying that the Army choosing a course intending to improve morale is automatically disingenuous. One hopes they allow for morale improving on its own as a result of the 'right' thing having been done.

    Look. These were all Americans in a tough spot trying to get hard work done. Human beings. This article seems to humanize very heavily Amber(As frightened of the consequences of her defiance as she was of the mission from the sound of her phone call) and her worried mother(Hey, if they let you call your mom to ask her to raise pure hell against them is the situation so dire that Hell really needs to be bothered?). But it treats the other actors in this scene as a monolithic leviathan of brute fury masked by a cynicism of only doing what's right because they were found out. Found out? Since when does due process not kick in when insubordination happens? There is no question they acted insubordinately. Part of due process, like it or not, is incarceration. Luckily so is representation.

    I know this has been a long bunch of blah blah, but this story is going to be the icon of discontent in the military for at least the next few weeks. This is already fodder for the election, and this article doesn't have to even mention the election. It didn't occur in a vaccuum, and neither did the incident.

    The article ends wondering if it's just isolated or if it's the pebble that starts the avalanche...Avalanche of what? Mass post desertions? A giant series of books by Michael Moore with even more letters of discontent? The numbers quoted from Annenberg are interesting as well. While it shows that Guard and Reserve forces thought themselves less prepared overall than regular military(that stands to reason, I think) it leaves out that over 70 percent of the military supports being in Iraq. This number goes up slightly for those that are actually deployed in Iraq. That number includes both active fulltime military and reserve/guard units. Morale can always be improved and equipment can always be improved, and we can always learn from our mistakes.

    If you're like me, you hope it starts an avalanche of support at home for keeping security in Iraq so that Amber doesn't have to worry when she's heading down the road to Tari. I know this has been a long post but it just seems that not enough actual consideration of mass media articles gets done. It is important to me that the first paragraphs of this story are quite sensational and are being more or less duplicated to give voice to the idea that things are so terrible in Iraq that these brave kids had to nearly sacrifice their lives in order to keep from having to sacrifice their lives and the evil government would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for those meddling moms and reporters. I'm sorry, but it just doesn't get to be that simple. There's far more to it than I've been able to express and I've gone on twice as long as the article itself, so I'm going to cash it in. This was just an exercise in thinking critically out loud to myself. In front of you. I'm going to go look for something funny to post now...


    posted by M@ at 8:26 AM   0 comments links to this post

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