Wednesday, August 25, 2004

I'm off to Italy for two weeks to celebrate the end of law school and the conclusion of the California bar exam. I won't have access to the news, the internet, my e-mail, or much of anything over there except good food and wine.

While I'm gone, please continue to visit my friends and colleagues linked on the left side of this page. Intel Dump will resume on Sept. 13 — hope to see you then!
Fixing blame and fixing the mess at Abu Ghraib II
The Army released its much anticipated report on intelligence issues and detainee operations in connection with the abuses at Abu Ghraib. The report, commonly known as the "Fay report" after its author, goes into some detail about where the chain of command broke down, where the intelligence system broke down, where the MPs failed to do their job, and how these things can be fixed for the future.

In addition to my Slate article looking at these issues, you can hear me on NPR's Day to Day program today (August 25) discussing the problems with U.S. detainee operations, and potential questions these abuses raise about the laws of war.

This issue isn't going anyway anytime soon, unfortunately. I imagine there will be more developments over the next few weeks, particularly as the Senate holds its hearings in early September on the matter and more comes out during pre-trial discovery in the various Abu Ghraib courts martial proceedings.
A 21st Century raison d'etre for the United States
Samantha Power has a powerful report in the current issue of the New Yorker on the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan. It is, by far, the best account on the matter that I have read, combining first-person reporting with historical and political context. Ms. Power wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "A Problem From Hell" two years ago, and I think her work should be mandatory reading for anyone involved (or interested) in American foreign policy. As the world's only superpower, I believe we owe certain duties to global society — one of which is to use our powers for that which is just and right. In the international arena, there are few causes more worthy than stopping genocide, wherever it may occur. That we have invested so much blood and treasure in Iraq, and so little by comparison in Sudan, says something about our values and priorities. I think we ought to reconsider that decision, and take a more aggressive stance towards genocide in Sudan and elsewhere.

Update: You can listen to Ms. Power discussing this issue and her article on NPR's Day to Day show from August 24th, available via streaming audio on the NPR website.
Looking out for soldiers
Operation Truth, a new veterans advocacy group led by Paul Rieckhoff, launched its website and new campaign today to make America more aware of veterans issues during this election cycle. The group brings together a diverse and non-partisan group of veterans, and it aims to focus attention on key issues like the overstretch of the military, use of private military contractors in lieu of or alongside soldiers, availability of VA benefits, and so on. Since Sept. 11, hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have gone through the crucible of combat. Taking care of them afterwards is, quite literally, the least we can do.

Check out Operation Truth, and see how you can contribute to taking care of those who gave so much for us.
U.S. body armor has an Achilles heel -- its new helmet
Greg Jaffe provides an excellent report in this morning's Wall Street Journal (subscription required) on the Army's new Kevlar helmet and some of its shortcomings. One of the Army's top neurosurgeons, with recent combat experience in Iraq, says the new helmet sacrifices too much head coverage (and protection) for comfort and maneuverability, with the result that soldiers are dying of head wounds that could have been prevented.
The Army had begun issuing a new helmet, dubbed the Advanced Combat Helmet. Made of a new type of Kevlar, the helmet is stronger and lighter than its predecessor. But the new helmet has a critical flaw, Col. Poffenbarger contends: It is about 8% smaller than the old helmet, offering less protection on the back and side of the head.

In past wars, this might not have been a big problem. In infantry-style combat, soldiers typically are struck in the front of the head as they charge toward the enemy. But in Iraq, where the deadliest threat is remote-detonated roadside bombs, many soldiers are getting blasted on the sides and back of the head, says Col. Poffenbarger. In other words, they are getting hit in areas where the new helmet offers less coverage.

"I've become convinced that for this type of guerrilla fight, we are giving away coverage that we need to save lives," says Col. Poffenbarger, a 42-year-old former Green Beret.

This summer, he briefed Gen. George Casey, the top American general in Iraq, as well as a senior Army official in the Pentagon about his concerns regarding the helmet. Gen. Casey declined to comment on the matter. However, a senior defense official said the colonel's observations are raising questions about whether the Army should move forward with a helmet that may not be suited for the kind of hit-and-run insurgency it is fighting in Iraq. The Marine Corps has already decided not to issue the helmet to the vast majority of its forces.

* * *
Col. Poffenbarger's observations are by no means a comprehensive study. His research is based on about 160 head-trauma patients who have passed through the 31st Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, where he works. Because the hospital houses the only American neurosurgeons in Iraq, virtually every serious head-trauma patient is treated by him or his partner. "If you get shot in the head in Iraq, I see you," he says.

He has gone through the records of all the hospital's head-trauma patients, documenting the exact entry point at which the shrapnel or bullet entered the brain and the type of helmet the soldier or Marine was wearing. Extrapolating from this, Col. Poffenbarger estimates the new helmet might result in a 30% increase in serious head traumas if distributed throughout the entire force in Iraq.
Analysis: This is a really old problem. Warriors in ancient times used to worry about how large helmets might impede their vision, as well as how they might make them look weak by wearing too much armor. Similarly, ancient warriors worried about the extent to which body armor would restrict their flexibility and prevent them from fighting in hand-to-hand combat. Today's warriors rely principally on their eyes and situational awareness to keep them alive, so it makes sense that the Army would develop a helmet to maximize those things and allow visual scanning via head movement. But as always, the procurement process can have hiccups, and it can overemphasize or underemphasize some values if the testers and generals let it. Here, that seems to be the case. The Army rushed this helmet into production, unlike the Interceptor body armor program, with the result that the end product might not be the best thing for the warfighter. I hope the Army listens to Lt. Col. Poffenbarger, and reevalutes this program in light of what he's found.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Fixing blame or fixing the problem?
The Independent Panel to Review Department of Defense Detention Operations, better known as the "Schlesinger panel" after its head, former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger, issued its report today on the abuses at Abu Ghraib. You can read the full report on the Defense Department's website. The panel's press conference available on CSPAN's website, and you can read a transcript on the DoD website as well. After reading some preview copy in this morning's papers, I put together this analysis in Slate on the report and its implications for the war on terrorism. More to follow...

Update I: For more on the Schlesinger report and its implications, I highly recommend this pair of interesting articles from this morning's Wall Street Journal (subscription required):

- Investigators Cope With Curbs in Iraq On Interrogation, by Greg Jaffe & David Cloud.
As the Pentagon released a new report criticizing senior officials over abuses of Iraqi prisoners, military officers in Iraq said restrictions on interrogations imposed in the wake of the scandal are hampering their ability to get critical intelligence.
- Military Promotes a Gentler Guantanamo, by Chris Cooper.
Serving tea to prisoners on a starlit evening seems light years away from the scene last fall at a sister facility in Abu Ghraib, Iraq -- and also at Guantanamo Bay, according to military officials and lawyers for prisoners. Abu Ghraib now is infamous as the prison where interrogators and guards employed techniques that included beatings and sexual abuse. The Pentagon itself has acknowledged that beginning in late 2002 it employed harsh techniques on two Guantanamo Bay prisoners -- including hooding them and interrogating them for as long as 20 hours -- who were believed to be harboring crucial intelligence.

A recent Army investigation of detention camps in Iraq and Afghanistan turned up 94 instances of soldier misconduct in the treatment of prisoners, including 20 deaths. The evidence suggests the tactics used in Iraq were imported from Guantanamo Bay, putting a harsh spotlight on operations at its Camp Delta.

Now, in an effort to rehabilitate Guantanamo Bay's image, Camp Delta's command has begun highlighting what they say is a strategy shift at the prison. For the first time since the prison camp opened more than two years ago, the Pentagon is allowing expanded tours of the facility for certain audiences.

Another reason for the softer interrogation techniques is that use of rougher tactics no longer may be effective. Many of the camp's 600 or so inmates have been wrung out after what essentially is a continual, two year interrogation.
Blackwater's AAR for Fallujah
The Raleigh News & Observer reported yesterday on some previously unreported details surrounding the ambush, mutilation and killing of four U.S. contractors in Fallujah that sparked a pitched battle for that city in March and April of 2004. Jay Price and Joseph Neff write that the team of contractors from Blackwater Security Consulting executed the mission with less manpower, armor and security envisioned by Blackwater's policies, and its contract for operations in Iraq.
Wesley Batalona, Scott Helvenston, Michael Teague and Jerry Zovko worked for Blackwater, a private security company based in Moyock in northeastern North Carolina.

The four men drove into an ambush March 31 along a main road in Fallujah without the full six-man team specified in Blackwater's contract to protect a company feeding U.S. troops. The contract was obtained by The News & Observer.

Iraqi insurgents riddled their vehicles with bullets before a mob defiled their bodies and hung two of them from a bridge over the Euphrates River. The incident, shown on television and front pages around the world, kicked off the bloodiest month in the Iraq war and led to a U.S. assault on Fallujah in which 600 Iraqis and 10 U.S. Marines died.

The four men were riding in a pair of Mitsubishi Pajero sport utility vehicles while guarding three flatbed trucks operated by Eurest Support Services, a European food company. Blackwater said the convoy was en route to a military base to pick up kitchen equipment. The Pajeros had no armor on the sides, just one plate in back.

All the factors that led to the ambush may never be clear. But several people who worked with Blackwater said the company should have sent its standard six-man team and two armored vehicles.

Also, they said, squabbling with its client over the vehicles didn't leave Blackwater operators enough time to familiarize themselves with their routes before starting work.

The contract for the work, which Blackwater signed March 12, says that such security teams would include at least six people because of the high risks in parts of Iraq. Topping the danger list: Fallujah.

"Further to Blackwater's analysis of ESS requirements and the current threat in the Iraqi theater of operations as evidenced by the recent incidents against civilian entities in Fallujah, Ar Ramadi, Al Taji and Al Hillah, there are areas in Iraq that will require a minimum of three Security Personnel per vehicle," the contract states. "The current and foreseeable future threat will remain consistent and dangerous. Therefore, to provide tactically sound and fully mission capable Protective Security Details, the minimum team size is six operators with a minimum of two vehicles. ... "

The U.S. military seldom ventured into Fallujah with fewer than four trucks loaded with heavily armed troops. Many private security contractors in Iraq work with at least three people in a vehicle so that the two armed passengers can "scan" 360 degrees around it to try to prevent ambushes.

Blackwater officials declined to discuss the company's decisions.
Analysis: I've written before on the problematic use of private military firms in a war zone, and I think this example illustrates some of those concerns. To be clear, Blackwater is one of the best PMFs in existence. It only selects the most elite former U.S. military personnel for employment, and typically conducts its missions in a very professional manner. Indeed, were it not for Blackwater employees, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Najaf probably would've been overrun in April 2004 by Iraqi insurgents. Nonetheless, the use of these contractors creates significant operational, legal and political challenges for the U.S.

It's not clear that any amount of security — including two vehicles and six personnel, per Blackwater's rules — would've made the difference here. Fallujah was a powder keg waiting to explode, and I think this convoy just provided the spark. However, the fact remains that these contractors were operating in a way that few (if any) U.S. military units would have. It's unlikely that any military convoy would have entered Fallujah with that little security, notwithstanding the skill of the Blackwater operators, and I doubt that they would've entered Fallujah at all if they had the choice. The ambush should have never happened, but it did because the contractors here were too audacious for their own good, and they moved out without enough military coordination or personal security.

Update: A reader wrote in to remind me that the Raleigh News & Observer has been all over this story for a while. They recently published a 7 part series on the Fallujah incident, and it contains some of the best reporting I've seen on private military firms in Iraq. Check it out.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Military appeals court upholds anti-sodomy law
In an extremely interesting decision (PDF), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces decided today to affirm a serviceman's conviction for sodomy under Art. 125 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, among other charges. In the case of United States v. Marcum, the CAAF affirmed that section's Constitutionality, despite arguments from the defendant and amici that this law was no longer valid in the wake of the Supreme Court's Lawrence v. Texas decision. More to follow...

Update I: This decision has limited precedential value, for CAAF decisions apply only in the military. This opinion may be cited in other courts, but its value will be quite low. Nonetheless, I think it's an important decision because it joins a very small group of appellate opinions on this issue in the post-Lawrence legal environment. Since the Court handed down its opaque decision in Lawrence, scholars and lawyers have scratched their heads to define exactly what that decision held. Specifically, practitioners have argued as to what precise level of scrutiny the Court mandated in Lawrence for future laws affecting private sexual activity. The Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces takes a whack at this question in Marcum, at 14-18:
The amici, in their primary argument, contend that strict scrutiny should apply to this Court's review of Article 125 because the Article impinges on a fundamental constitutional liberty interest.

* * *
In contrast, the Government contends the Supreme Court did not find a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy by overruling Bowers because the Supreme Court applied the rational basis standard of review in Lawrence.

* * *
Although particular sentences within the Supreme Court's opinion may be culled in support of the Government's argument, other sentences may be extracted to support Appellant's argument.

* * *
The Supreme Court did not expressly state which test it used. The Court did place the liberty interest in Lawrence within the Griswold line of cases. See Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 564-65. Griswold and Carey address fundamental rights. However, the Supreme Court has not determined that all liberty or privacy interests are fundamental rights. In Lawrence, the Court did not expressly identify the liberty interest as a fundamental right. Therefore, we will not presume the existence of such a fundamental right in the military environment when the Supreme Court declined in the civilian context to expressly identify such a fundamental right.

What Lawrence requires is searching constitutional inquiry. [emphasis added]
Huh??? Either I slept through Constitutional Law and BarBri, or I haven't heard of this standard of review before. This is really odd. The CAAF judges make a valid point when they say that the Supreme Court really muddied the waters with its prose in Lawrence. (Thanks Justice Kennedy) But then, instead of choosing one of the established levels of scrutiny and going with it, the CAAF decides to invent a fourth standard — "searching constitutional inquiry", which I take to fall somewhere below "strict scrutiny", probably between "intermediate scrutiny" and "rational basis". I'm not sure what value this new level of scrutiny adds, if any, or why the court chose to do this. It's just odd.

Update II: At pages 21-22, the court throws in some very provocative language on constitutional law and the possible applicability of Lawrence to the military's overall policy on gays in uniform, codified at 10 U.S.C. 654. Here's what the court says:
The military landscape, however, is less certain than the government suggests. The fog of constitutional law settles on separate and shared powers where neither Congress nor the Supreme Court has spoken authoritatively. Congress has indeed exercised its Article I authority to address homosexual sodomy in the Armed Forces, but this occurred prior to the Supreme Court's constitutional decision and analysis in Lawrence and at a time when Bowers served as the operative constitutional backdrop. Moreover, the Supreme Court did not accept the
Government's present characterization of the right as one of homosexual sodomy. The Court stated, "To say that the issue in Bowers was simply the right to engage in certain sexual conduct demeans the claim the individual put forward[.]" Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 567. "The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime." Id. at 578. Nor did the Supreme Court define the liberty interest in Lawrence in a manner that on its face would preclude its application to military members.
That's very interesting. I think it shows that the defendant's amici had an effect on the court, because they argued this point quite strongly in their brief. This language will probably be favorably cited in future attempts to overturn "don't ask/don't tell" in the court system, based on the law of Lawrence. We'll see how those play out.

Update III: The court reaches its ultimate verdict against Eric Marcum in a very interesting way. Lawrence, according to the CAAF, protects consensual sexual activity. Here, the jury did not convict Marcum of forcible sodomy. However, the rank difference between him and his sexual partner obviated any consent, and created a situation (within the military social environment) where "consent was not easily refused". Here's what the court says at 26-27:
While servicemembers clearly retain a liberty interest to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct, "this right must be tempered in a military setting based on the mission of the military, the need for obedience of orders, and civilian supremacy."

* * *
As the supervising noncommissioned officer, Appellant was in a position of responsibility and command within his unit with respect to his fellow airmen. He supervised and rated SrA Harrison. Appellant also testified that he knew he should not engage in a sexual relationship with someone he supervised. Under such circumstances, which Appellant acknowledged was prohibited by Air Force policy, SrA Harrison, a subordinate airman within Appellant's chain of command, was a person "who might be coerced" or who was "situated in [a] relationship[] where consent might not easily be refused." Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 578. Thus, based on this factor, Appellant's conduct fell outside the liberty interest identified by the Supreme Court.
Analysis: I agree with this verdict. Unit cohesion is a very important thing, and the military environment is unique in that it restricts all sorts of private relationships that might adversely impact unit cohesion. This is roughly analogous to what feminist law scholars have said for some time about rape and sexual harassment in the workplace -- that consent is always suspect where there is a power imbalance between otherwise consenting individuals. In the military environment, these power imbalances are both more clearly defined and more significant, because they could ultimately become the relationship of commander and subordinate on the battlefield, with life and death at stake. I think it's fair to say that consent is an issue in any sexual relationship where there is a difference in military rank -- and certainly in Marcum's case, given the facts here. So I think the CAAF came to the right conclusion, even if I don't agree with their reasoning.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

"All but war is a simulation"
Clive Thompson has a really interesting article in this week's Sunday NYT magazine on the increasing use of video games...err... advanced computerized combat simulations... by the military to train soldiers for war. The article covers a lot of familiar ground for me, having trained on many simulations during my time with the Army's 2nd Infantry Division and 4th Infantry Division. To conserve training resources (like land and ammunition), and to leverage every potential training minute, we used simulations for everything from calling for artillery fire to massive Corps-level command post exercises. Interestingly, the higher the echelon of command, the less realistic the simulations seemed — they became, in effect, giant versions of the board game "Risk". (The old "call for fire" simulators were pretty lousy too, at least so far as visiual effects were concerned, though they did provide good training on target location and the adjusting of fire by FM radio.)

But the simulations now being developed for tactical training at the company level and below appear quite realistic. One now in use is called the Close Combat Tactical Trainer (CCTT); it has both vehicular and dismounted versions, and it provides a very good training experience. These kinds of things still don't substitute for real experience or in-the-woods training -- you can't replicate the feeling of being cold, wet, tired, hungry and scared in a simulation. But they do offer a valuable training opportunity where soldiers would otherwise just sit in a classroom.
Intel Dump - 1 million served
According to my web traffic counters for this site and its predecessor, Intel Dump reached 1 million "unique visitors" sometime last week. As of Sunday morning, 1,032,902 unique visitors have visited Intel Dump since Nov. 2002 when I started this project. I know this number double-counts a number of people because of dynamic IP addresses and other technical issues. But I still think it's an important milestone for me, because it probably means that more people have read my 'blog work than my actual printed articles. Thanks for your support.
Pork! Get your farm fresh pork! $8.9 billion in pork here!
Winslow T. Wheeler, a senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information, writes in today's Washington Post Outlook that Congress has seen fit to include billions and billions of dollars of pork in this year's $416 billion defense appropriations bill. Of course, there's a war on, so you'd expect a spike in defense spending. But as Mr. Wheeler writes, this money isn't going to help the troops or even to help things tangentially related to supporting the troops — it's pure, unadulterated, USDA Grade A pork.
If you look at the hidden details of the legislation, it's clear that Congress has failed dismally — and deliberately — to fulfill its constitutional mandates to "raise and support armies" and to "provide and maintain a navy."

Legislators have amply demonstrated that what they're really interested in is raising and providing some home-state pork to impress voters in an election year. To that end, they have busied themselves with squeezing funds for war essentials such as training, weapons maintenance and spare parts — things troops in combat need more, not less, of — to send extra dollars their constituents' way. And it's equal-opportunity raiding: Both Republicans and Democrats have been fully engaged in this behavior. Even Capitol Hill's self-proclaimed "pork buster," Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has made a regular practice of calling his colleagues on their gluttony, has essentially given the gorging a wink and a nod.

A pork-hungry Congress has long been with us, of course, but this year, with our armed forces engaged on two major fronts, Congress has pushed the pork in the defense budget to an all-time high, totaling $8.9 billion. And even as they did so — and voted to fund wartime operations at only a fraction of what nearly all analysts agree is needed for the duration of 2005 — conservatives, liberals and moderates alike have presented themselves as doing everything they can think of to support the troops in the field. Don't believe it.

A brief examination of how the Senate, where I worked for three decades for senators from both parties, handled the defense appropriations bill this summer illustrates the chasm between appearances and reality. On June 24, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alaska Republican Ted Stevens, rammed the $416 billion bill through the Senate in just a few hours. Forty-two amendments, the majority of them involving small spending projects promoted by senators with an eye on bringing home the bacon, were adopted by unrecorded "voice" votes — usually after cursory deliberation that failed even to explain the subject matter.

The next day's Congressional Record provided some details when it printed the text of the amendments. There, for example, you can find the amendment offered by Democratic Sen. Max Baucus for a grant to Rocky Mountain College in his state of Montana for three Piper aircraft and a simulator, and Republican Sen. Rick Santorum's $3 million add-on for an unbudgeted artificial lung device for the Army. By the time Congress had finished with the bill in July, House and Senate members had added more than 2,000 of these "earmarks," thereby achieving their new porcine record. Some of these items had at least some tenuous relevance to defense, but many didn't. None, though, had been included in the defense budget put together by DOD and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and there was subsequently little, if any, objective evaluation — for instance, either by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the Government Accountability Office (GAO) or in a congressional hearing — of their cost and efficacy. Each one was literally a pig in a poke.
Analysis: The problem is not just "pork" — which my friend on the Hill defines as those things added to the budget by Congress after the President submits the bill for consideration. The problem is also "fat" — which he defines as those things put in the bill by the President and Defense Department when it comes over to the Hill. Those things, which Fred Kaplan has written about for Slate, include such unnecessary items such as:
- $4.1 billion for 24 F-22 Raptor "stealth" planes, and $4.6 billion for R&D; into future generations of stealth aircraft
- $2.5 billion for a new Navy Virginia-class nuclear sub
- $10.7 billion for missile defense
... and the list goes on. If you plumb the depths of the National Defense Authorization Act and the annual defense appropriations bill, you will find tons and tons of fat — added to the bill before it ever saw the light of day. Add in some pork on top of this fat, and you get one incredibly wasteful piece of government spending.

I try to take long view here, in seeing that some of these projects (like missile defense) implicitly subsidize the defense industry and scientific industry in order to keep critical parts of our military-industrial complex at work during peacetime. I also try to be optimistic that some of these projects might actually lead to fieldable, fightable systems down the road — it would be really great to have an inpenetrable missile defense system some day. But I'm also a bit jaded, and I think that's probably naivete on my part. The fact of the matter is that we can't afford to dole out billions in pork and fat when our soldiers go without up-armored HMMWVs for 18 months in combat, or Interceptor body armor for the same time, or when our National Guard soldiers drive trucks older than they are, or when our Guard and Reserve troops go to war unprepared because there wasn't any extra money to hold extra training days before deployment. We are a nation at war, and we must evaluate the use of every resource to ensure that it is going to victory.
Swift boat debate calls for hip boots
The debate over Sen. John Kerry's service in Vietnam rose (or sunk) to a new level this past week. In response, an editor at the Chicago Tribune who skippered a Swift Boat with then-LT Kerry decided to publish a first-person account about the engagement where Sen. Kerry earned his Silver Star. The Washington Post also contributed to the fray with an article examining claims on both sides, although I think it just made the waters murkier. According to the AP, William Rood decided to speak up because he objected to the treatment of Sen. Kerry's wartime actions by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in their now infamous advertisement.
William Rood, 61, said he decided to break his silence about the Feb. 28, 1969, mission because reports by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are incorrect and darken the reputations of veterans who served with Kerry, according to a report in the Tribune's Sunday editions.

Rood, an editor on the Tribune's metropolitan desk, said the allegations that Kerry's accomplishments were overblown are untrue. Kerry came up with an attack strategy that was praised by their superiors, Rood said.

"The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us," Rood said in a 1,700-word first-person account published in the newspaper. "It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there."

According to the Tribune, Rood's recollection of what happened that day in South Vietnam was backed by military documents, including his citation for a Bronze Star and a report written by then-Capt. Roy Hoffmann, who commanded his and Kerry's task force and is now a critic of the Democratic candidate.

The mission has become a focal point of a political and media firestorm fueled by the Swift Boat Veterans.

One of the group's leaders, John O'Neill, succeeded Kerry in command of a swift boat. O'Neill is co-author of the book "Unfit for Command," which accuses Kerry of lying about his wartime record and betraying comrades when he returned from Vietnam by alleging widespread atrocities by U.S. troops. The Swift Boat Veterans have repeated the accusations in TV ads.
I read Mr. Rood's account of the events that day in the Los Angeles Times, which also printed his story. Suffice to say, Mr. Rood's account impressed me with its detail, its depth, and most importantly, its basis in documentary evidence. Here's a short excerpt:
I was part of the operation that led to Kerry's Silver Star. I have no firsthand knowledge of the events that resulted in his winning the Purple Hearts or the Bronze Star.

But on Feb. 28, 1969, I was officer in charge of PCF-23, one of three Swift boats — including Kerry's PCF-94 and Lt. j.g. Donald Droz's PCF-43 — that carried Vietnamese Regional and Popular Force troops and a Navy demolition team up the Dong Cung, a narrow tributary of the Bay Hap River, to conduct a sweep in the area.

The approach of the noisy 50-foot aluminum boats, each driven by two huge 12-cylinder diesels and loaded down with six crew members, troops and gear, was no secret.

Ambushes were a virtual certainty, and that day was no exception.

* * *
The difference was that Kerry, who had tactical command of that particular operation, had talked to Droz and me beforehand about not responding the way the boats usually did to an ambush.

We agreed that if we were not crippled by the initial volley and had a clear fix on the location of the ambush, we would turn directly into it, focusing the boats' twin .50-caliber machine guns on the attackers and beaching the boats. We told our crews about the plan.

The Viet Cong in the area had come to expect that the heavily loaded boats would lumber on past an ambush, firing at the entrenched attackers, beaching upstream and putting troops ashore to sweep back down on the ambush site. Often, they were long gone by the time the troops got there.

The first time we took fire — the usual rockets and automatic weapons — Kerry ordered a "turn 90" and the three boats roared in on the ambush. It worked. We routed the ambush, killing three of the attackers. The troops, led by an Army advisor, jumped off the boats and began a sweep, which killed another half-dozen VC, wounded or captured others and found weapons, blast masks and other supplies used to stage ambushes.
Analysis: The fog of war obscures what actually happened nearly 40 years ago in Vietnam; the inherent flaws of the human mind cloud the picture even more. If this were 1976 and we were discussing the facts, I'd say there was a fair chance of getting to the truth — but not a great one. But this is 2004. The combat stress literature suggests that no veteran's first-hand account will be necessarily accurate because of the way that war affects the mind. At best, many veterans will accurately see things in their narrow lane, from their narrow perspective, but even those things may be subject to some cognitive interpretation. Add in 30+ years, a lot of anger, and a lot of politics, and you get a formula for inaccuracy. Notwithstanding all of that, I still think that Mr. Rood's account carries a great deal of credibility. It tracks what is in the official record; it tracks what other vets on Sen. Kerry's boat said; and it tracks with what I've read about U.S. riverine warfare during the Vietnam War.

However, we do have some good information to use in reconstructing the facts here. Paperwork in Vietnam wasn't always great, and indeed, after-action reports were frequently embellished by senior Army commanders (as well reported by David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan) in order to please Washington. That said, I think there are certain things we can rely on here. The undisputed facts still show that Sen. Kerry volunteered for active-duty naval service, went to Vietnam once, then volunteered again for Swift Boat service, and was then cited several times during the course of that service. The documentary evidence shows that he was wounded three times — however slight — in combat. And the documentary evidence shows that he was decorated three times — two Bronze Stars and one Silver Star — in combat, which means that at least some of his chain of command concurred in the award. For all we know, Sen. Kerry was a pompous ass who didn't get along with all his shipmates and engendered a great deal of anger once he came home from the war to speak out against it. But even if that's true, it doesn't change what this documentary evidence attests to — that Sen. Kerry went to Vietnam, fought, was decorated for his valor.

To be clear here, I think that Sen. Kerry opened the door to this debate by making his combat veteran status a central component of his appeal to voters. I wrote last February in the Chicago Tribune that the character of President Bush's service mattered, and I think that the character of Sen. Kerry's service matters too. However, I think the Democrats are about to take the gloves off in responding to this one. I wouldn't be surprised to see some really vicious attack ads appear about the President's National Guard service (or lack thereof), his history of drug and alcohol abuse, his failed business ventures and questionable dealings as part of the Texas Rangers, and other things about his past. That would be a shame, because it would take us further afield from the issues that matter like Iraq, terrorism, foreign trade and offshoring/outsourcing, health care, the deficit, etc. But the Democrats can't afford to turn the other cheek here, so I think things may get really ugly soon.

Frankly, I'm a little sick of this debate. It upsets me as a veteran to see these sorts of old wounds picked apart and used for political purposes. It also upsets me as an American to see the electorate manipulated in this way. But as long as "going negative" will produce electoral results, I think we're stuck with it. And the duty falls to us, as political consumers and voters, to figure out how to wade through this crap in order to find the truth. That's where the hip boots come in. You can buy a camoflauge hip boot set from L.L. Bean, or find an appropriate set at any fine sporting goods store near you. But I promise you this — you're going to need 'em by November.

Update I: C.E. Petit, a vet with a great deal of relevant experience, has some excellent comments on military awards and the Kerry flap here and here on his weblog "Scrivenor's Error". I wasn't alive at the time of Sen. Kerry's Vietnam service, let alone in the military, so I only have history books to go by in judging these awards. But Mr. Petit has personal experience, so his comments are worth a read. Bottom line — the awards system in Vietnam was deeply flawed, and we can't rely on awards for any sort of conclusive proof about what happened over there.
Army changes its homework assignments for soldiers II
Ian Mason has an interesting article in this morning's Boston Globe on the changes to the Army's professional reading list announced last month by Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's Chief of Staff. I opined then that these represented significant changes to the intellectual orthodoxy of the service -- something borne out by Mr. Mason's reporting and interviews with officers in Schoomaker's office. The new list includes a number of notable books, but also excludes a number of notable books and subjects too. The Army claims that this list is part of its "transformational" effort, and in some ways, I think it is. But reading about transformation and actually making it happen are two different things, and I think this list doesn't go far enough.
Feedback loops
The Washington Post editorializes this morning on the case of Army Capt. Oscar Estrada, who was sanctioned by his unit for writing a commentary for the Post on his duties in Iraq. The Post editorial echoes some of my comments from earlier this month, but adds a very important argument that I missed. Much of the best information about Iraq does not exist in Washington. It exists at the muddy boots level, where the rubber meets the road and the bullets fly, in Iraq. A lot of the best information about what's going on, how to fight, and how to win resides in the minds of our junior officers and sergeants now serving in-country. The old aphorism "wisdom from the mouths of babes" is appropriate here. Though they may be junior in rank and age to the senior leaders in Washington, I guarantee you that young men like Oscar Estrada have a better handle on what's going on -- at least within their narrow field of vision. And so, I think Washington allows speech like this to be suppressed -- and ignored -- at its peril.
Gitmo detainees bat 0 for 14 before review panels
The AP reports that the Defense Department's "Combatant Status Review Tribunals" have reached a decision in 14 of the 31 detainee cases heard so far. Not surprisingly, the panels have found sufficient evidence to continue holding the men as enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay. Many of the detainees refused to go before the panels, either fearing their statements would be used against them at subsequent hearings or not wanting to recognize the legitimacy of these proceedings. Nonetheless, the Defense Department has pushed forward, arguing that these panels satisfy both the Geneva Convention's requirements for "competent tribunal[s]" and its own administrative requirement to clean up the detainee population at Gitmo.

What do I think? These panels are probably a good idea -- but they're about 2 1/2 years too late. These detainees' intelligence value hit rock bottom within days of their arrival at Gitmo, save for a really small number of high-value detainees estimated by U.S. Defense Department officials at 50-70 persons out of 600 total prisoners. The vast majority of these guys are just foot soldiers, albeit foot soldiers in a very violent organization that preached global jihad. There's probably value in continuing to hold them, so they don't go rejoin the jihad under Osama Bin Laden's command upon their parole. But there's not much of an intelligence (or intelligent) justification for holding them without any legal process -- especially the summary process given by these review panels. Army regulations themselves contemplate some process for all captured prisoners. These panels are roughly equivalent to what Army regs envision, and so I don't see any problem with them except that they're probably too little, too late.