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August 20, 2004

Armchair Quarterbacking From The Ivory Tower

Deb at Marine Corps Moms has something you should read about this:

Marines Launched Attack without Approval
Alex Berenson and John Burns of the New York Times make the explosive allegation that local Marines in Najaf launched the attack on Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Militia on August 12 all on their lonesome, without direction from the Pentagon in Washington. At most, they had authorization from the American-appointed governor, Ali al-Zurfi, though he won't take responsibility for it all, either.
If Berenson and Burns are right, American Men on the Spot are making crucial policy decisions that have the potential to affect the lives of all Americans and all Muslims. The Marines in Najaf were acting like just another militia, engaging in a local turf war with Muqtada and his men, and giving no thought to the consequences of behaving barbarically in the holy city of Najaf.
Helena Cobban subjects the NYT article to a searching analysis that is well worth reading. She argues that the Najaf attack shows a Marine corps out of control and a command structure that is a "tangled mess" and in which US Ambassador John Negroponte played a sinister role, supporting the initial Marine miscalculation in the Najaf attack. [addendum 10:45 am].

What both posts demonstrate is the danger of getting drawn into a detailed discussion without bothering to consider whether the basic premise is flawed. Mr. Cole starts off by saying:

If Berenson and Burns are right, [Ed. note: if only he'd stopped here...] American Men on the Spot are making crucial policy decisions...The Marines in Najaf were acting like just another militia, engaging in a local turf war with Muqtada and his men, and giving no thought to the consequences of behaving barbarically in the holy city of Najaf.

What neither he nor Ms. Cobban bother to examine is whether there is any evidence that Berenson and Burns are right. Absent this evidence, both their posts make absolutely no sense. What Cole terms 'Ms. Cobban's "searching analysis"' is replete with typos, made up words, and unfounded assumptions which she proceeds to embroider upon to reach a conclusion unsupported by the facts. Obviously carried away with the heat of her argument, she apparently could not be bothered to check her own words. One wonders how carefully she then examined the evidence (or lack thereof) at hand, or even her basic assumptions.

Deb responds:

I wonder if Cole has ever stood face to face or conversed with a U.S. Marine. I have. I've talked with a number of Marines from all ranks and I've never met an "ignoramus" yet, especially at the Battalion Commander level. The Marines who are on the ground and in the middle of the battle have a perspective that someone who stays safely in an ivory tower will never realize.
If Cole is an expert on Islam, he should realize that when a mosque or a shrine is used as a base for staging battle, it loses its protected status. The revered Ayatollah al-Sistani has implicitly concurred with this assessment. Even so, the Marines have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid damaging shrines and mosques in all holy cities.

Ms. Cobban notes with alarm:

In both cases--April, Fallujah, and August, Najaf--these confrontations came almost immediately after the Marines, deploying to replace US Army units, decided unilaterally to change the "rules of engagement" under which the Army had operated, which in both cases had previously kept the Army units out of the known geographic areas where their presence would be seen as immediately provocative.

This also kept the Army conveniently away from the fighting... Ms. Cobban is correct in one of her assertions: the Army and Marines definitely have a different style, just as they have different missions. This is why Marines are generally called in - they have a reputation for aggressiveness, for taking the fight to the enemy. Ms. Cobban admits her 'goals' may be different from those of the administration. Looking at her sidebar, one notes she is a Quaker who has participated in a collaborative effort with "the Dalai Lama and Noam Chomsky". These affiliations make it seem unlikely that she would support any military action. But the Marines are paid to fight, not to write lengthy pacifist screeds. And the "detailed planning" she calls for is often impossible in battle. Indeed, history has shown that even the most careful plans are often made irrelevant by conditions on the ground: conditions that local commanders must constantly assess and respond to. As Deb comments:

When 1/7 Marines left for home last September, they knew that Sadr's quest for power and influence would continue to be a problem. But, the Army took over control of the region and ignored Sadr for months as he built his militia and power base, much like they did with Fallujah. When the 11th MEU arrived on the ground, they found a mess, much like that in Fallujah. And, like Marines have done for nearly 229 years, they cleaned house. It's long overdue. Sadr needs to be removed - one way or another - now.

Ms. Cobban goes on to conclude:

It also seems very clear to me that the evident dysfunctionalities in the US forces' chain of command in Iraq need to be corrected, immediately. How on earth can a couple of low-level reprobates like Haslam and Holahan be allowed to get away with making on-the-fly decisions for escalation, regardless of the broader consequences? They should be visibly disciplined, and the whole command situation brought back under some form of rational control.

The military is subject to civilian control, and this is as it should be. It is not clear that the Times reporters are in possession of all the facts. The involvement of Ambassador Negroponte is hardly sinister - it is, in fact, evidence of the very exertion of civilian control Ms. Cobban laments the absence of earlier in her post. Ms. Cobban is correct in saying that the military should not be making policy decisions, but offers no real evidence that this has taken place. By her own admission, the story is "still not totally complete". Undaunted, she nevertheless proceeds to spin a complicated web of unfounded allegations and unsupported conclusions. Pull one thread - her basic premise - and the web quickly unravels.

h/t: JHDad

- Cassandra

August 20, 2004 at 07:41 AM | Permalink


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Deb at Marine Corps Moms has a post about her reaction to Juan Cole's reaction to a New York Times report. Whether or not the report is accurate remains to be seen, but Juan Cole's reaction to the report shows he doesn't know what the hell he is ta... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 21, 2004 3:20:05 AM