Changing Command
By Shea Howell
Michigan Citizen, May 19, 2009

This week President Obama gave the commencement address to the students, faculty, and staff at Notre Dame, searching for common ground in the abortion debate. It was vivid reminder that the President offers the promise of bringing new insights into old arguments. As he often notes, he was a mere child when the issues, collectively called the culture wars, first polarized the country.

However, while his distance from the beginnings of these battles gives Obama a certain freedom, it also limits his understanding of some hard-earned truths. One lesson many of us learned in Viet Nam was that generals lie. They lie about the reasons for war, they lie about the results of battles, they exaggerate accomplishments, cover up crimes, and pay little attention to civilian deaths. They lie to Presidents, to the press and to the people.

That is why all of us should be very concerned that this week President Obama changed the general in command in Afghanistan with the announcement by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates that General David D. McKiernan had resigned and been replaced by Lt. General Stanley A. McChrystal, a veteran Special Operations commander.

McChrystal is currently the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, but from 2006 to August 2008 he was the forward commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, responsible for capturing or killing high-level leaders of the al-Qaeda in Iraq. Most of his resume is considered too secret to be shared with us.

What we do know is not good. First, there is the mission of Special Operations Forces in which he has spent his career. These people are the assassins. They operate outside all law. Now they are implicated in running camps subjecting prisoners to brutal, dehumanizing treatment.

Human Rights Watch special investigator Marc Garlasco, a former Pentagon intelligence officer, recently issued a report “No Blood, No Foul,” covering the period 2003-2004 describing abuse of prisoners at a camp near Baghdad where McChrystal was frequently seen in his role as commander of US Joint Special Operations there. The report, based on the testimony of soldiers, raises questions about McChrystal’s responsibilities.

Whatever his role in this horrid chapter of our history, it is absolutely clear that he was part of the attempted cover up of the death of Pat Tillman in 2004. When Army Ranger Tillman was killed by friendly fire, the Pentagon seized the opportunity to turn the former NFL player into a war hero. The aim was not only to increase sympathy for the war, but to deflect attention away from the photos being released of abuses of detainees in Abu Ghraib. Tillman’s family, friends and the public were all told a lie about how he had died racing up a hill into enemy fire.

The story told to Tillman’s family never added up. After five years, six investigations and two congressional hearings, it is still not clear exactly how Tillman died or why his death was turned into a public relations stunt. Now the commander who assisted in manufacturing these lies and actually approved the Silver Star for Tillman is about to take control of all our troops in Afghanistan.

In the long list of bad decisions that the U.S. government has made around the globe, the most disastrous and deadly are linked to the kinds of operations that General McChrystal specializes in. From our hand in the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew the democratically elected Mohammad Mosaddeq in favor of the Shah, to today’s devastation of the people in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, these operations ultimately take us down a road toward greater disaster.

Common ground with black operations is not the place our President should stand.

Common humanity requires a different kind of wisdom.



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