Word is out

Image: New York Magazine

About Bradley Manning, I mean. Among what he reveals: most of those folks holding “I am Bradley Manning” masks don’t know what the hell they’re saying.

Ever since the story began to break, I’ve felt more and more drawn to it as a writer and, yes, as a queer person (any way you want to hear that). As I told someone this morning on Facebook, Manning in so many ways encompasses so many of my themes, from PTSD to gender to whistleblowing, that I sometimes think I made him up.

This has especially been the case with gender stuff — in which dimension I’ve walked very gingerly. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my friends who’ve undergone gender transitions, it’s that only the person in question is entitled to talk about it. Period. Manning was out as gay, but relatively few pursued the clues pointed out by Gawker last year, such as Manning’s chat log saying that “my CPU doesn’t match the motherboard” or that he feared media exposure “as a man.”  Without Manning saying anything of the kind in public spaces, we all steered away from it, even though military intelligence didn’t seem to be (why else have the boy sleep naked in front of other soldiers?).

I didn’t even say anything after I watched the clip from PBS Frontline above, and told my wife that “the way Manning stands in that party, that’s a girl.” Only to my wife: it wasn’t mine to say. Still isn’t in some ways.

But now there’s this breathtaking piece in New York magazine, Bradley Manning’s Army of One.  Steve Fishman, the journalist, seems to be in about the same place I am with Manning, and traces what I call in my book the “this is for fighting, this is for fun” gender wild card – but in the process, he violates all my rules on respect for gender transitions.  In the process, he limns what I can only suggest – that even as in years past to even BE female OR gay in the military was inherently subversive, Manning’s outsider-self may have catalyzed a more profound kind of dissent.

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mark benjamin blows the whistle

Again, this time at TIME Magazine.  I count Benjamin as one of our era’s Ernie Pyles, from his Salon series on suicides at Camp Lejeune to his unflinching coverage of torture. And he’s kept on the Arlington Cemetery scandal with persistence and grace. Ernie Pyle crossed with Seymour Hersh: because when he sniff something wrong, he doesn’t let go.

You’ll be drily amused, as I was, as he peels off the layers of how the Army has sat on issues at Arlington for decades, it seems:

A copy of that 1997 inspector general report obtained by BATTLELAND shows some shocking deficiencies at the cemetery. It doesn’t say anything about not knowing where all the bodies are buried, which turned out to be the real scandal.  But it basically says that the Army knew back in 1997 that the cemetery was out of control in myriad ways under the Superintendent there, Jack Metzler, and his deputy, Thurman Higginbotham. The Army finally forced them out last summer, 13 years later.

And here is the kicker — the 1997 report follows yet another report that found problems back in 1992.

“The atmosphere of turmoil, distrust, mismanagement and poor employee morale has continued to the present,” the 1997 report says. “There is no indication that the superintendent has changed and employees have lost confidence in his leadership ability.”

God bless the honest IG that at least recorded the truth, for folks like Benjamin to unearth. Like misplaced graves.

 

Just read. Leon Panetta, there’s an epidemic on and your job to deal with it.

At Common Dreams, Annette Bonsignore asks the questionI hadn’t got around to: ” Will the Media Give Leon Panetta the Same Pass Provided to Robert Gates on the Military’s Rape Epidemic?” She lays out the challenge very well:

The media now has an opportunity to confront and question the next Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.  Will the media give him a pass too?  Will the media continue to ignore those in Congress that have been addressing the issue?  On June 9th Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) questioned Panetta about the rape and sexual assault crisis – but where was the media coverage?  Oh, that’s right the media frenzy over Representative Weiner’s “crisis” was blanketing the airwaves.  Panetta’s boiler plate “zero tolerance” policy response to Senator McCaskill needs to be questioned as well as the ongoing narrative that women are the only victims of sexual violence in the military.

I’m starting by sending you to her. Read it, then forward it to your Congresscritter and ‘cc our new SecDef.

As for that list of officers McCain mentioned…..

Some reporters from this outfit looked more closely at the letter McCain was waving around this week before Congress and the TV cameras, saying the letter had proved that many officers supported the policy. But the average age of the signers was 74, most had never served since 1993, and when asked by the journos quite a few denied signing the letter at all.

But the juiciest part was the,ummm, questionable record of some of the most prominent:

• Rear Adm. Riley Mixson in 1993 received a career-ending letter of censure from then-Navy Secretary John Dalton for involvement in the 1991 Tailhook scandal, during which he failed to take action against allegations of sexual misconduct. According to the New York Times, “Mixson was cited for failing to take action when he saw a woman drink from a dispenser made to look like a rhinoceros’ penis and men shaving women’s legs.”

• Gen. Carl Mundy made several statements in 1993 on CBS’ “60 Minutes” that racial minority soldiers “don’t swim as well” or perform other duties as well as white troops. He also once unilaterally banned married recruits from joining the Marine Corps, a move Defense Secretary Les Aspin rescinded the following week.

• Lt. Gen. Fred McCorkle was head of Marine Corps Aviation in the late 1990s, during the design and test phase of the V-22 Osprey. He oversaw cost overruns and allegedly falsified records — all while praising the aircraft. McCorkle now works for and sits on the boards of several companies that manufacture Osprey components.

I wonder if David Mixner has seen this yet, and if the letter’s full exposure might inspire Elaine Donnelly, the old Phyllis Schlafly aide whose organization first published it, to finally close down her tired show. (Maybe she can retire to Florida, where she can make no sense amid people as delusional as she is, like the Scientologists.)

Leave no FNG behind: thoughts on Kelly Kennedy’s They Fought for Each Other 

TheyFoughtForEachOthercoverI’ve hoped to grow up to be Kelly Kennedy ever since my friend, rockstar author Alia Malek, profiled the Military Times reporter for Columbia Journalism Review. I knew it was impossible, of course, as the very first line of Kennedy’s author bio makes clear: “Kelly Kennedy served as a soldier in Desert Storm and Mogadishu, Somalia.” Back when I was stuffing envelopes and marching to stop the wars she was in, Kennedy was in uniform, making all my experiences working with GI’s kind of feel beside the point.

Still, the latter may have accounted for the way I responded to her book, a month-by-month chronicle of the travails of Charlie Company, 10th Mt. Division, in the first few years of the Iraq war — during which the tight-knit unit lost more than half its men.

The book’s climax, I knew before I started, was a mutiny: echoing for me those during the Vietnam War chronicled in David Zeiger’s film Sir! No, Sir! Kennedy notes that echo, but also notes that these soldiers acted not so much in opposition to the war but because they knew their orders would likely result in losing more men.

In an email exchange before I got the book, she and I talked about the difference. When I said “her” boys belonged in my book, she asked “Oh, I guess you mean the mutiny?” I said yes — especially to illustrate an important change among today’s soldiers. In Vietnam, troops went in and out one by one (thus the “he’s a short-timer,” common lingo in all Vietnam films). Now, with whole units staying together through multiple deployments, members re-enlist. don’t go AWOL. take all their action out of a deep sense of loyalty — that profound love about which soldiers that Homer wrote so beautifully.

“In the framework I’m working in,” I told Kelly, “[that mutiny] feels like a near-perfect example of how a strategy designed to make wars go smoothly (encouraging greater unit cohesion than in, say, Vietnam or Korea) can have unplanned consequences when you take today’s slightly older, mostly brilliant, thinking soldiers into account.” And she agreed: “I’d say that’s what the title says, really — In Vietnam, nobody cared about the FNG [fucking new guy], and it seems as if the guys could opt out of getting to know people they knew they’d lose. These guys got to the point where they didn’t care about the war, but cared deeply about each other.”

None of this chat prepared me for the book itself — which I recommend highly, but also recommend keeping a box of tissues nearby. I had to stop reading for days on end because I kept crying: because she has made me care about Oscar Avila, More Campos, Ross McGinnis — and then she blew them up, or rather the war did.

I can’t even choose passages to quote, because just reading the names makes me well up. Go ahead and buy a copy, share it with everyone you know.

Last, two lessons for me from the book’s compelling writing:

First, she integrates the complexities of today’s PTSD challenges as well as anyone can — and keeps it close to the narrative. The medical professionals come off as both essential and often clueless about how to cope with these responses in the middle of a war zone. It’s stunning, actually.

Second, Kennedy does not appear as a character ONCE. Having just read another acclaimed book whose author kind of gets in the way of her story, I’m even more determined to keep my own details away from the book as a whole.kennedycover

today is a moving target

First installment in a not-unprecedented effort to start over and draft a NEW final chapter in plain sight

So the scene I included in my Murtha-obit post? I once thought of it as a prologue for the entire book — except that even if I,’d been right on deadline, that 2005 scene would have felt miserably old. Then, I thought perhaps it should n open my final chapter of Ain’t Marchin, even when I realized that it’s now not scheduled to come out Murtha’s demand had mostly been met, when MOST of the troops Murtha wanted to be out will be back home (inshallah), and perhaps so will most of this year’s Afghan surge (trying not to laugh). If I wrote the chapter like all my others — a straight chronological narrative, touching base with my core themes and characters who exemplify those themes — where *would* I put Murtha’s speech? At the beginning, though many of the newer vets I’ve spoken to were already at stage two-four-five of their griefs? Is there a definable beginning to all this, or an end?

And I realized something important: if I’m only barely qualified to identify beginnings, end, trends and causality in stories of long ago, these wars are just too much of a moving target. And what is also true: what I am not is a sniper, unlike a number of the guys whose stories are before me. (Or the guys above, members of a US Navy 070520-N-0933M-084 Combat Service Support Detachment (CSSD) 1 and CSSD-3 firing the M-4 rifle at various moving targets during a live-fire evolution exercise.)

Better journalists than I have been busy documenting the pieces I care about — George Packer, Kelly Kennedy and Dexter Filkins embedding with active-duty folks, while Helen Benedict, Mark Benjamin and Aaron Glantz have charted the newest efforts to address combat trauma and Dahr Jamail, Sarah Lazare and David Zeigert have been chronicling much of the dissent as it happens. You don’t need me even to hold a flashlight: for the most part, these are young (and some not-so-young) people who are, as I wrote for Guernica late last year, both media-savvy and self aware: “Between the internet and a culture that understands trauma (at least at the Dr. Phil level), they know what PTSD is and how it affects them.” They’re telling their own stories and hacking their own paths through the detritus we’ve thrown their way.

What I can offer instead is a series of scenes, each with what I see as the relevant echoes of the past — some of the latter embodied in actual people who’ve stuck around, or nearly (Zinn, Murtha on the “nearly” list — and my own tentative take on where those scenes, and the people in them, fit along that zig-zag path I talked about in the introduction. If newspapers are the first draft of history, this is a cross between a clippings file and one of those hasty pseudo-autobiographical novels young writers produce when the raw material is too fresh.

I’ve also tentatively decided not to use real names in the case of the young veterans, even those who have already published books of their own. Because another moving target is the actions of the Court of Appeals of the Armed Forces and the Defense Advisory Conscientious Objector Review Boards, or the approval process of the Veterans Administration. And I don’t want something someone said to me, even if they agreed to be in my book, to form the a reason for denial of benefits or a bad discharge decision.  There are no composites, and savvy people will recognize themselves here and I’m happy to provide documentation for any specifics about injuries or sequences if asked. But their experiences are theirs, and while I’m deeply thankful they’ve agreed to be part of this story I’d rather let them self-identify as they see fit after the fact.

More later; until I deliver the manuscript to my editor and agent in a few weeks, I’ll be writing posts like this every day in addition to the news feed.

When journalists talk about something as  a “moving target,” they’re often talking conceptually — the needed skills for the job, or conceptions of women, or definitions of ‘objectivity.’ The only parallel I found for my current near-terror was from medical reporters who talked about cancer as the moving target of reporting because the scientific landscape keeps changing. I’ll refrain from the obvious stupid metaphors, and just ask your indulgence while I sort it out.

War films and books: Who can’t handle the truth?

Last fall, I thought a lot about what writing about war really meant.  Two articles this week went at that question kind of sideways:

First, a Week in Review piece by Washington insider Elizabeth Bumiller, about the newest rack of books on the Iraq and Afghan wars, saying that these soldier-writers “explore the futility of war but wars that they for the most part support. I found that slug less than fully supported by the books/writers mentioned therein, even given the weasel-phrase “for the most part.”

Bumiller also states that such pro-war narratives are different from previous wars, though she writes from little knowledge: “I do not believe much soldier writing about the US Civil War, or World War II, for instance, opposed those wars. I think she is implicitly reacting to some of the books about Vietnam,” wrote science writer Jonathan D. Beard on one of my war-history listservs. Beard’s mostly right, although “not much” does not equal “none” and in that gap much of my book resides.

The same day as the Bumiller piece, A.O. Scott discussed what he called  the new breed of “apolitical” war movies:

It may be that movies, at least as they are currently made and consumed, can’t bridge the gulf between the theater of war and the arena of politics. It is also probably true that the soldiers who are the main characters in fictional and nonfictional war movies don’t talk much about the larger context in which they struggle to survive and get the job done. But in previous wars — in older war movies, that is — they could be a bit more forthcoming. Sailors and infantrymen in World War II combat pictures were known to wax eloquent about the pasting they were going to give Hitler and Tojo, while the grunts in the post-Vietnam Vietnam movies often gave voice to the cynicism and alienation that were part of that war’s actual and cinematic legacy.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different. They are being fought, for one thing, largely out of sight of the American public and largely by an army of professionals. And the respect afforded those professionals — an admiration that is the most pervasive and persuasive aspect of “The Hurt Locker” — extends across the political spectrum. At the same time, though, the political contention about the wars themselves has been vociferous and endless, even as it has involved a measure of ambivalence and, as the wars have gone on, a lot of position-changing and second guessing.

Perhaps the decision to stay out of these debates is a way of acknowledging this ambivalence. Or perhaps filmmakers, aware of the volatility of popular opinion, are leery of turning off potential ticket buyers on one side or another. Or maybe, in the end, the gap between beliefs about war and its reality is too wide for any single movie to capture.

Scott comes close to getting at the core of the issue in one way, though he never addresses the central paradox of writing about war at all. Some of us — yes, I mean you Wilfred Owen, Oliver Stone, Tim O’Brien, let alone us civilian amateurs — instinctively feel that to provide actual, gory details about war is in itself an antiwar act. But I’ll never forget Anthony Swofford’s observation in Jarhead about Gulf War troops getting psyched for battle in 1991:

For three days we sit in our rec room and drink all of the beer and watch all of those damn movies, and we yell Semper fi and we head-butt and beat the crap out of each other and we get off on the various visions of carnage and violence and deceit, the raping and killing and pillaging. We concentrate on the Vietnam films because it’s the most recent war, and the successes and failures of that war helped write our training manuals. We rewind and review famous scenes, such as Robert Duvall and his helicopter gunships during Apocalypse Now, and in the same film Martin Sheen floating up the fake Vietnamese Congo; we watch Willem Dafoe get shot by a friendly and left on the battlefield in Platoon… the rape scenes when American soldiers return from the bush after killing many VC to sip cool beers in a thatch bar while whores sit on their laps for a song or two (a song from the fifties when America was still sweet) before they retire to rooms and fuck the whores sweetly. The American boys, brutal, young farm boys or tough city boys, sweetly fuck the whores. Yes, somehow the films convince us that these boys are sweet, even though we know we are much like these boys and that we are no longer sweet.

Then is it  the rest of the writing that tells you the politics? If it’s determinedly free of any clues, is that also political? And where does this all fit into my zig-zag definitions of dissent? Those are the questions roiling around in my head right now; I’d love some suggestion from any of you, especially the warrior-writers Bumilller largely ignored.