Bing West, a Vietnam veteran and author, is supposed to be a reasonable man. When his book about the surge, The Strongest Tribe, came out, I wrote in the Washington Independent that it sounded like an instant classic. It’s still on my bookshelf at home. But I doubt I’m going to read it after his unhinged rant on Small Wars Journal against Nir Rosen, Bob Gates, and basic journalistic freedom.
Like Dave Dilegge, West has a problem with Nir’s recent embed with the Taliban, but unlike Dave, West chalks it up to Nir’s traitorous impulses and a general moral rot in the soul of America. West is either unable or unwilling to distinguish between seeking to study the Taliban and joining the Taliban. That basic failure allows him to write this:
Rosen described how he and two Taliban fighters deceived the guards at a government checkpoint. Suppose during World War II an American reporter had sneaked through the lines with two German officers wearing civilian clothes. “When we caught enemy combatants out of uniform in the 1940s,” a veteran wrote in The American Heritage, “we sometimes simply executed them.” The Greatest Generation had a direct way of dealing with moral ambiguity.
So there you go. Try to understand the Taliban on its own terms — ask questions that offend the Patriotism Police — and, in West’s moral universe, you should be executed. Now there’s a sentiment the Taliban would recognize.
Ah, but Nir’s offenses are symptomatic of a deeper cultural rot. West ties Nir to a quote from a Reuters editor who reveals that (gasp!) journalists in Afghanistan are often in contact with the Taliban, and don’t consider it their job to act as intelligence agents for the U.S. government. That "cries our [sic] for a national debate," he writes, since Our Fathers would have never tolerated such lily-liverishness. The idea of an independent media doesn’t occur to West. He even sneers at such anti-American operatives as Dexter Filkins, who risked his life to cover the Marine invasion of Fallujah in November 2004.
Then it really gets good. It’s not just the journalists, West writes, it’s the squishes in the Pentagon.
Most disturbing was the lack of outrage to Rosen’s sojourn by the administration, the military, the civilian appointees and the politicians. Secretary of Defense Gates is a cool, detached official who reacts to events. He does not plot a course into the future. He does not project a determination or a vision about how to succeed in Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Mullen, calls for a strategic review – after six years of fighting! – laments that “we cannot kill our way to victory”, a vacuous absolution that transfers responsibility for failure to others. Why increase from 32,000 to 50,000 US troops, whose basic training is as riflemen, if the application of force – killing – is not the objective? A policeman protects the population by arresting criminals; a soldier protects the population by shooting the enemy soldier. Our military succeeds in confusing us all by reverting to Rodney King’s plaint that we should all just get along.
And this guy is supposed to understand counterinsurgency? Recognizing the basic strategic fact that not all problems have a military solution indicates that Bob Gates and Mike Mullen and David Petraeus means "transfer[ing] responsibility for failure to others." Could this myopia be any more self-refuting? I take back what I said about not reading West’s new book, because I can’t wait to see how The Strongest Tribe explains away the obvious failures of the killing-our-way-to-victory strategy in Iraq from 2003 to 2006.
West finishes up strong. "Rosen’s conduct is not the problem," West writes, "he was taking advantage of American moral lassitude." It’s all your fault, America. How dare you extend freedom to journalists in your Bill of Rights? Don’t you know the depths of moral turpitude to which that leads?
Update: Why does Andrew Exum hate America?
Update II: Robert Farley asks why Bing West hates Thucydides.