if you’re anywhere near Philly on March 15th

All this meditating on Bergdahl has gotten me included on this panel on WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station. You should come for veteran correspondent Quil Lawrence and the other panelists:

  • Josh Fattal, Former Iran Hostage
  • Malcolm Nance, Veteran U.S. Intelligence Officer
  • Rachel Van Landingham, Military Law Expert and Professor of Law

Read up on all of them first. It’s going to be amazing.

Newsflash: New York Times + Buzzfeed sue FORSCOM re Bergdahl, and don’t tell anyone

foi-900x500I’m going back and forth between a legal filing I received this weekend and my newswires, which show no signs that some of the major news organization have filed a request with General Abrams, commander of Fort Bragg — politely demanding the public release  of its investigation of Bowe Bergdahl.

I’ve written here before about Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who burst into public consciousness last year after 5 years of being held prisoner by the Taliban. I titled that post “Bergdahl=Rashomon,” given the wildly contrasting, quite-firmly-held views of the case expressed by people who knew nothing about what happened that day in Afghanistan that Bergdahl disappeared, Most recently he’s been a public whipping boy for Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who has planted his flag in the Bergdahl’s a traitor camp even before the Army has decided on a court-martial.

As the public debate over this very complex case rages, Bergdahl’s civilian defense has begun to demand that all investigations be released, even taking the unusual step of releasing the transcript of last-week’s preliminary hearing into the matter. So you’d think it would be news that General Abrams, of the U.S. Army Forces Command, has just been served with a legal “request to intervene” filed by:

HEARST NEWSPAPERS LLC; THE ASSOCIATED PRESS; BLOOMBERG L.P.; BUZZFEED, INC.; DOW  JONES & CO., INC; FIRST LOOK MEDIA; GANNETT CORPS; MCCLATCHY CO; THE NEW YORK TIMES CO; REUTERS AMERICA; AND WP COMPANY LLC, D/B/A THE WASHINGTON POST

With such a list of heavyweight press outlets asking, you might think one of them would mention it. I do expect that to happen eventually, once their national-security legal divisions  have vetted it.

I also expect that later today, Guernica Magazine will be running my own piece on Bergdahl; I’ll add the link later, and also write more about the news that is not yet news.

Update: Here it is, with a title out of CJR. Let me know what you think, and welcome if you came from this blog from there.

Pi Day news: some rational writing to go w/the irrational number

AintMarchincoverbyAlexOK, that title’s a reach. But here goes:

 

news: the Monday dozen

AintMarchincoverbyAlexI know I haven’t posted one of these in a few days, but that’s not because there wasn’t much to note. Below is a full baker’s dozen, though some are echoes of stories already on our radar.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

96-year-old outtake: fort leavenworth goes on strike

Even when you’re mistakenly thinking you’re taking advice from William  Faulkner. it’s not so easy to kill your darlings. I learned about the riot at Fort Leavenworth early in my natterings at the Swarthmore Peace Collection, and it’s taken a long time to declare the riot less relevant to Ain’t Marching’s story than I thought.  Most of what’s below has been now excised from the text, but you might be as compelled as I was. Drawn on a magazine story by Winthrop Lane, buddy of Emma Goldman, for its dialogue:

**********************

 

Leavenworth_View_of_Building_caThe steam hissed through the pipes, but not enough to warm the prisoners at Fort Leavenworth.

Temperatures that normally averaged just at freezing, for January in Kansas, hovered nearer the ten-degree mark. Which meant that the steam pipes kept banging and whistling, trying to keep up, and none of it cooled the blood of the 3,560 men packed together like tightened gears.

Two months after the Armistice, the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth was full to bursting. Workers on the 75-year-old sandstone fortress, on 12 acres surrounded by a 40-foot concrete wall, had built more barracks a mere two years ago, in 1917, so that it could hold 1,500 men — soldiers convicted of theft, murder, deserting the Great War. But the War itself had brought all sorts of new offenders to the prison, many of them dumped by other military installations who’d found they couldn’t handle them. In late January, if the Barracks were a person, it would have been obese, with a high fever and a case of nervous exhaustion.

Certainly Colonel Sedgwick Rice, the prison’s commandant, was trying to prevent such a state that month, when the prisoners went on strike.

The rebellion had begun with a melee after a card game between black and white soldiers, who weren’t used to being in such close quarters. Rice could deal with that. But then they’d started to refuse to work. The real problem, Rice thought, was those troublemaking conscientious objectors, who claimed to “oppose war” and simply refused to do anything. He knew some of them were from the peace churches, but others were more political, probably communist agitators. Like that Evan Thomas guy, brother of a buddy of President Wilson’s: The brawl over the card game had started after Thomas and 112 other objectors were released with $400 in each man’s pocket. Now all work had stopped: no one was cooking, or cleaning the toilets, or painting the new training grounds across the way. Now, everyone was claiming to be “on strike.”

On the morning of January 29, five days after the melee over cards, Sedgwick made his way down to the boiler room, where the strike organizers were doing their work. A large man with a relaxed bearing, he spoke matter of factly to the skinny “objectors” and tired workmen, who looked at him with a mix of rage and fear. “Who here thinks he has a grievance?” A slender young man with cheeks flushed by cold stood. Something about him, about the way he held his cigarette, told Col. Rice that the guy was a Red.

  1. Austin Simons stood carefully, for the colonel’s inspection. A poet and sometime journalist, he knew better than to be surprised when the older man asked: “Are you with the I.W.W. [International Workers of the World]?”

Simons could barely make himself heard over the steam pipes. “No, sir,” he said carefully. He knew a lot was at stake here – right now, his ability to bargain on behalf of the other soldiers. “I never belonged to that organization.”

Rice also asked if Simons was a “constitutional objector – one who objects to all forms of government and order.”

“No, sir, I do not.”

“Well, most Socialists do,” said Rice.

Others in the group approached with complaints ranging from their individual sentences to the “rotten” meat served the prisoners. “The war is over,” cried W. Oral James, a small-bodied man shivering in his thick raincoat. “The government has already released 113 of our fellows. Has it had time to investigate the justice of other claims?”

After three agonizing days, as Rice negotiated face-to-face with the prisoners and sent telegrams to Washington, the various “strike committees” assembled on February 1. Holding a telegram from the capital in his hand, Rice tried not to look as cold as he felt. He read aloud a statement from Secretary of State Dean Baker, which promised that each of their cases would be reviewed. “I fully appreciate that the cessation of hostilities and the return of conditions approximating those of peace,” Rice intoned on Baker’s behalf, “render it just and proper that clemency should now be exercised.”

It’s not recorded, even by journalist Winthrop Lane, who followed the strike carefully, whether the prisoners cheered at the words. Or whether they laughed bitterly, since the author of the statement was the chief architect of “the present war” – without which none of them would have been crowded within these walls to begin with.

Long after the Armistice was signed in November 1918, open rebellions continued to startle military authorities, including the conglomeration of deserters, CO’s and malcontents that stuffed the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks . While the uprising at Leavenworth was covered by major newspapers, especially the Chicago Tribune, the most detailed account was Winthrop Lane’s “The Strike at Fort Leavenworth,” published in the February 1919 issue of the left-leaning Survey Magazine.

Lane, who had visited Emma Goldman in prison and written famous investigations of Harlem poverty and the coal mining industry, had been hired by the National Civil Liberties Bureau to investigate Kansas jails. His perspective is thus explicit, but he was still trusted by Colonel Rice to witness their negotiations. Lane observed quickly that the prison population was singular: “In private life the soldier had been a clerk, a mechanic, a day laborer, a politician, a business man…He may have quitted his post for five minutes, he may have been absent without leave for a week, he may have intentionally deserted.”

They stood at attention or saluted when these officers passed. An unquestioning obedience was expected of them that is not expected of men in civil prison. Yet they organized themselves in the approved labor union way and presented their demands just as if they had the full power of collective bargaining.

H.A. Simons, one of the “elected representatives,” was a poet whose main obsession before the war had been whether his poems would be published in the Little Review. His educated manner helped Simons negotiate with Colonel Rice and others, but he still had to deny first that he had ever been a member of “the I.W.W.” . Pentagon sources, quoted in contemporary accounts, consistently blame the the International Workers of the World for the disturbances at Leavenworth, right up until they started blaming “the Bolsheviks.” The I.W.W., founded in 1905 and nearing the crest of its power with scores of affiliates, had long refused to endorse Wilson’s war.

Objectors were hardly immune to the time’s fervor. After the war, Simons would join his friend Wallace Stevens in writing for The Masses and for The Liberator, “the premier journal of American radicalism,” while Evan Thomas’ brother would be hailed in 1918 as “Comrade Thomas” by the “Queens Socialist Party,” having joined the Party in 1918 and just as his brother was released from prison.

Russia’s infant revolution was also exciting to some at Leavenworth, curious about “class war.” And thus began, perhaps, the nervous, complex love-hate romance between rebellious G.I.’s and the sectarian left that has lasted for nearly a century. Lane tells of the strikers’ “last soviet” with Simons, who said that one worker could be moved “but together, we are immovable.”.

The January strike was only the first in a series. The last ended in July 1919, after most of the conscientious objectors had been released and the remaining prisoners were demanding a full-fledged amnesty. Appropriate to the period, they’d nicknamed their barracks Lenine, Anarchia, and Internationale, according to contemporary newspaper accounts.

**********************

If you’ve read this far, you may be struck by the fact that dissenting soldiers have been a tempting target for sectarian-left organizers for as long as both have existed. I still wonder how  this will end up in the book. Any suggestions?

a 1968 whistleblower, for whom “official channels” didn’t work

Not that often I’m caught out by an obituary. And I can’t believe I never heard of Colonel Anthony B. Herbert:

In August 1968, he joined the 173rd Airborne Brigade stationed in the central highlands of South Vietnam. It was there as commander of the Second Battalion of the 503rd Infantry, he said, that he witnessed what he described as eight war crimes, including serial executions of detainees and water torture of a prisoner.

He reported the offenses to the commanding general of the 173rd Airborne and his deputy. The next day, Colonel Herbert was relieved of his command and dealt a devastating efficiency report.

Actually, Herbert’s story was broken by Nick Turse at the LA Times in 2006, just as I was starting my book and long before he published the searing, vital Kill Anything That Moves: The American War in Vietnam. 

AnthonyHerbertbookThe NY Times obit notes that Herbert blew the whistle just as Hersh’s My Lai articles were inflaming the nation: I’d pay good money for any record of conversations between Herbert, Hersh, and the late great Hugh Thompson. Or Daniel Ellsberg, for that matter. Instead, time to read Herbert’s own book, published before he knew we’d all repeat the same sins in the Middle East.

 

 

bowe bergdahl, who walked away from Omelas

bergdahl

I meant to post this eons ago, before Bowe Bergdahl returned to duty and began facing the prospect of court-martial for desertion. But it’s actually time now, with the new-sorta war that has everyone I know on tenterhooks — including/especially those who, like Bergdahl, have spent time in the Sandbox wondering why,

Imagine how much more you’d be if after three months home, and six weeks after talking to Army investigators, you were in limbo at Fort Sam Houston with no idea when or if your life will transform again.His attorney, the sterling mensch Louis Fidell, told reporters this week that he feels like “the Maytag repairman…I’m just waiting for the phone to ring.” That hasn’t stopped the professional talkers, from Fox News to the House of Representatives, from using Bergdahl’s release last spring as a political boomerang thrown at President Obama.

Despite all the time and spilled pixels, it feels like we know less about Bergdahl than we did when he was still a Taliban prisoner and we had only Michael Hastings’ vivid 2012 Rolling Stone portrait.  What we have instead is speculation, and the understandable anger from members of the unit he walked away from, never to return, and measured words from his parents and his attorneys.

In The Nation, Robert Musil fell back on stories of Vietnam-era deserters, to  urge  compassion for”an American kid stranded in the middle of Afghanistan who feels he has no choice but to go away from his unit.” Telegraph UK writer Tim Stanley wrote about Bergdahl, “The rebellious soldier is a paradox that is hard to process.” That word ‘paradox’ was also used by AP’s Martha Mendoza, which calls Bergdahl’s story ” a complicated paradox surrounding a complicated man.” Her narrative includes the soldier’s homesschooling with Calvinist parents, his progressive/hippie college girlfriend, his fantasies of heroism with the Foreign Legion before enlistment and his agonized letters home from Afghanistan.

The New Yorker’s John Cassidy turns to literature to unlock the puzzle: “If anything, he sounds more like Captain Yossarian, the antic antihero of Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22”—who considers his superiors to be nuts and eventually goes AWOL—than Sergeant Brody, the double-dealing protagonist of “Homeland.” In his early twenties, engaged in a war on the other side of the world that many people, including his Commander-in-Chief, would ultimately decide was counterproductive, Bergdahl, seemingly, had had enough.”

Another story that occurred to me, reading the Hastings profile, is Ursula Le Guin’s classic  “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”  In that oft-taught parable,  the inhabitants of a Utopia are shown the suffering that makes their comfort possible. Most accept it, but a few leave their home, trudging without belongings toward a city hard to fathom. “I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

Similarly, Hastings writes, “Bowe Bergdahl had a different response. He decided to walk away,”  a  sentence written after describing the alternative:  “Active ­duty soldiers in the U.S. Army are currently committing suicide at a record rate, 25 percent higher than the civilian population. Other soldiers lash out with unauthorized acts of violence: the staff sergeant charged with murdering 17 Afghan civilians in their homes last March; the notorious “Kill Team” of U.S. soldiers who went on a shooting spree in 2010, murdering civilians for sport and taking parts of their corpses for trophies. Many come home permanently traumatized, unable to block out the nightmares.”

A Times editorial added that “Thousands of soldiers desert during every war, including 50,000 American soldiers during World War II. As many as 4,000 a year were absent without leave for extended periods during the Iraq war. They leave for a variety of reasons, including psychological trauma, but whatever their mental state, it is the military’s duty to get them back if they are taken prisoner.” And not to make assumptions about their mental state either before or after such an ordeal.

That applies to us, too. To me, even though I’m currently contemplating including Bergdahl in my title. Because we still don’t know anything.

 Telegraph UK’s Tim Stanley does what I’d be tempted to do: state that the case shows ” the damage to a nation’s psyche caused by a controversial war,” note all the auxiliary issues civilians wrestle with at times like this, and conclude:  “Bowe Bergdahl should never have been in Afghanistan in the first place. Bush should never have sent him there; Obama should have brought him home sooner. War makes a Hell of men’s lives.”  I agree, but it’s not enough.

Before I write a word about Bergdahl in this book, I need to do much more reporting. I really want to talk to Matthew Hoh, himself a soldier-dissenter, who knows the family and spoke clearly about Bergdahl’s journey for CNN:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7M33hz69A0%5D

I can only hope to talk to his attorney, one of the nation’s best-known specialists in military law, who I talked to very occasionally in the CCCO days. And just as with Chelsea Manning,  I know there’s no way I can interview the man himself, and thus am skittish about writing any actual commentary of my own here.

I’ll instead give the last word to that attorney, Eugene Fidell — via Sig Christensen, who’s 10X the journalist I’ll ever be and who wrote last week’s story on the Army’s delay.   “Fidell wouldn’t discuss Bergdahl’s activities here but said his client wants to focus on his education once out of the Army. “His time is up. His enlistment has long since expired. He wants to go to college [..] There are many bridges that have to be crossed before he has to make a decision on where he’s going to live.”