Today, I am pleased to publish an interview with John Bernard, a retired Marine Corps First Sergeant and combat veteran who, since launching his blog Let Them Fight or Bring Them Home in 2009, has developed a large following for his perceptive insights into our current struggles. The interview is conducted by Paul Hair, a writer and veteran of the war in Iraq.
Unusually long and far-ranging, this interview examines many issues related to America's unusually long and far-ranging wars, now almost a decade old. The disastrousness of COIN theory, Bernard's take on Gens. Petraeus and McChrystal, changing the ROEs, pardoning the Leavenworth Ten, conservative hopes for Rep. Allen West, Islam, Christianity,"diversity" -- all and more are treated here in a extraordinarily thoughtful discussion.
Paul Hair writes:
I first learned of John Bernard through Diana West (“ROE Are Merely Symptom of ‘Hearts and Minds’”) and the Stars and Stripes blog entry, “Photo of dying Marine forces a difficult decision.”
Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan murdered Mr. Bernard’s son, Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard. Media outlets ignored his wishes and the wishes of the Department of Defense by running a photograph of his son as he lay dying from his wounds. This initially outraged me but because our nation bombards us with insult after insult, my outrage has subsided and now I simply keep this action in mind as the standard—a standard of “civility” if you will. And should I ever be in a position to decide whether or not to run a photograph or footage of anyone in the mainstream media that they do not wish run, I will remember what they did to Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard.
A later Stars and Stripes article, “Fallen Marine’s father champions Afghanistan fight,” tells Mr. Bernard’s story and also describes Mr. Bernard as “the anti-Cindy Sheehan.” I don’t think I would have used that description but I understand why Stars and Stripes did: Sheehan worked to undermine the U.S. and aid the enemy; Mr. Bernard wants our troops to be able to fight to win or be withdrawn from the battlefields.
Now Mr. Bernard writes at Let Them Fight or Bring Them Home and works to change the strategy and rules of engagement (ROE) that U.S. troops fight under in Afghanistan so as to favor American victory and the lives of American troops. He agreed to an email interview with me. Here are my questions and his answers.
Paul Hair: You voiced your opposition to General Stanley McChrystal long before President Obama removed him as the commander in Afghanistan. You have been critical of General Petraeus as well. What are your thoughts on General Petraeus now and the job he is doing? Do you think the strategy and ROE have changed at all since General Petraeus replaced General McChrystal? If so, have they changed much and have they changed for the better?
John Bernard: I think there has been an ongoing misunderstanding of General McChrystal's part in the strategy as we have seen it evolve in Afghanistan. McChrystal was seen as the originator of the strategy change there and it's supporting ROE. The fact is, General Petraeus instituted the current strategy having introduced it in Iraq first.
The public perception of the COIN effort in Al Anbar Province was skewed by proponents of the strategy early on who never really offered the public the entire view of the shift from unsecured battlefield to control.
The fact is Force Saturation had far more to do with bringing control to Al Anbar than did the far more restrictive elements of COIN. The counter intelligence elements of COIN that aided the war effort there are not COIN specific but part of any good strategy. The intell gleaned from those efforts aided our Marines and Soldiers in directing more successful attacks on more specific targets there.
The changes implemented by General McChrystal in June of 2009 were based on the perceived successes in Iraq in Al Anbar. One of the weaknesses in the human psyche is that we tend to guide the process to produce the result we hope for. I believe that has been the case in Afghanistan. General McChrystal implemented a strategy that was already deemed to be not only correct but the only possible strategy to use in Afghanistan. When McChrystal resigned and Petraeus took that position, one down, he simply continued with the strategy he had already deemed correct.
I am still convinced that COIN will prove to have been an absolute disaster there. So far we are measuring it's success by the poundage of candy handed out by troops, the amount of chai we can drink and the amount of US dollars being distributed. Recently, comments were made that 'large tracts' of Afghanistan were now nearly Taliban free. I have no doubt, but it is largely due to force saturation in those areas - not having killed the Taliban who have simply moved to safer areas. They are very patient.
PH: Cybercast News reported that, “One-third of the total 1,259 U.S. military deaths reported since the beginning of the nine-year Afghan war have taken place” in 2010, that 55% of all American fatalities in Afghanistan have occurred since President Obama’s inauguration, and that 2010 was the deadliest year in Afghanistan for American troops. Two questions about this: What part does COIN play in these deaths and why do you think the mainstream media haven’t made more of an issue of the deaths considering how they (the mainstream media) acted during the previous presidential administration?
JB: I'll answer these in reverse. The media is as pragmatic as the Taliban but with different goals. The media is first a business and then a purveyor of story - not truth. If the story sells paper or air time, they will lead with it. If it is not going to make money; it's dead on arrival. I have always held that the people will make the difference and ultimately determine how we proceed in this latest campaign of this 1400 year struggle. If the people are not interested; the story will not be told.
I also believe that the vast majority of the media like the vast majority of others of their generation have been told how to think. There is an ever growing part of the population seeking to further their education in the halls of some very liberal minded institutions. What comes out is decidedly different than what goes in and critical thinking and good, solid history are not two of the subjects taught.
The entire history of Counter Insurgency Doctrine is marred by failure or questionable success and even the earlier originators of the written doctrine were not all in agreement. The only example of a truly effective COIN operation since it was first floated is the British experience in Malaya from 1948 - 1960 and the conditions and 'Human Terrain' were significantly different. There is virtually no comparison between our Afghanistan experience and the British experience in Malaya. There are, however, similarities with the British experience in Afghanistan and the Russian experience there. Somehow, our civilian leadership and the Pentagon thought they could do it better in spite of those glaring historical lessons.
From my vantage point; COIN is directly or indirectly responsible for every American death in Afghanistan from at least June of 2009 simply because we redefined the battle space and how we would act there. The field of combat is not static; either one side or the other will exploit the weaknesses and initiatives of the other but someone will remain active there. We made it clear once we fully instituted COIN and it's supporting ROE that we were not going to pursue the enemy. Our focus was going to be population protection. Once we started down that road and our Senior Military Leadership made public announcements to that effect, it told the enemy, the Taliban exactly how to alter their battle strategies and their effectiveness can be measured in our death toll.
PH: You’ve contacted Senator Collins (R-ME) and advised her of how you would like to see the ROE and strategy changed in Afghanistan. Have you contacted Senator Snowe (R-ME) as well? Do you think that you or others will be able to persuade civilian and military leaders to change their minds on how we fight back against the Islamic War on the West?
JB: Both Senators Collins and Snowe and Representative Michaud know my stance on this. They and members of their staff have received copies of every piece of correspondence and every Blog entry I have written. At least Collin's office has made it clear that while they may entertain my view, they will not be swayed. Whatever their collective motivations, the cost paid by our Warriors seems to not be a factor for them. They show up at funerals and pay condolences but their focus is still in lock-step with the current thinking about how to engage the enemy.
I believe the only possibility for effecting change in DC and then the Pentagon, will be by popular pressure. Having said that, we have a long way to go. The prevailing understanding of Islam and the effect on our troops who are in such close proximity is still not grounded in a proper and accurate assessment of history. The vast majority of the American population is not personally affected by the war and the overwhelming majority of the population knows absolutely nothing about Islam other than what they have been told to believe much less the more damning elements of it's 1400 year history. There are those who think that any disparaging comments of the doctrines of the religion are somehow racial slurs. It is a rather curious accusation considering the Muslim population of the world is estimated at 1.3 billion and come from all walks of life. I have to remind people that there are Afghan and Iraqi Christians and in fact Christians, Jews, Hindu etc. in all of the Islamic dominant countries in the world. Until we can break through that barrier and other lesser barriers, it will continue to be an uphill fight.
One of my pleas is for Americans to start thinking like Americans again instead of world citizens. This is especially true for our Representatives and the White House. People can think about anything they want and define it in any way that pleases them; it's a free country, but, leaving sovereign United States forces in that barren land to test your theories about the congeniality of other nations is immoral.
PH: I want to briefly touch on Iraq. What do you think the long-term future of Iraq will be now that it has formed a new government and as the U.S. continues reducing its presence?
JB: Iraq is already fracturing. We know it. Maliki knows it. Both the US and Iraq have agreed it will be necessary to leave American forces there for an undetermined amount of time to maintain security. In addition and most alarming is the re-surfacing of Al Sadr on the Iraqi political scene. He has been in study under the Clerics in Iran for years and is now seen as someone who will not only have a say in the future of Iraq but is likely to be a prominent voice once his studies are complete. If anyone thinks the future prospects for Iraq is good with an Iranian trained Shia Cleric, they simply don't understand the players.
Add to this the uptick in violence there and it is clear that the government does not have control and the people are, apparently, not invested in the concept of a democratic or secure Iraq.
PH: Why do you think that U.S. military and civilian leaders—and thus by extension, the American People—allow for the release of Islamic terrorists and allow for the sympathy of them, yet apparently care less that servicemen who defend our nation (such as the Leavenworth 10) are jailed or driven from the armed forces (such as retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Allen West)?
JB: It is a sad commentary on the people of any nation when the plight of their Warriors is not the first thing on their minds. Since January of 2010, Karzai has released nearly 1000 Taliban back into Afghan society. We have directed Marine Corps Officers to act as a sort of local magistrate in determining when other detained Taliban should be considered pacified and repentant enough to warrant their return to Afghan society as well. Add to that the continual consternation by our elected representatives for the well-being of detainees at Guantanamo and other detention facilities and you have to worry about the future of this country.
Much of this is driven by the strategy which was implemented by the human terrain assessments and the Commander's Intent. The Pentagon does not unilaterally generate strategy. The strategy is generated to best fulfill the mission which is pre-determined by the Intent. If the White House sends a message about the enemy to the Pentagon, the strategy will reflect that understanding. Under COIN, the ROE is necessarily restrictive and continues to tighten as the campaign ages. But we have further complicated the problem for our Warriors by daring to suggest these self-serving Taliban thugs are a legitimate force. By doing so, we insure they are covered by the Geneva Conventions which at least in spirit makes no allowance for these kinds of players. Affording them the United States Constitutionally recognized rights of Americans, essentially makes American citizens and our Servicemen less secure. Again; the American people have got to come out from the Theaters and the Malls and hold our government Representatives accountable if we hope to see rational thinking return.
PH: Jailing servicemen or forcing them out through the practice of prosecuting and/or punishing them for killing and aggressively pursuing jihadists obviously will alter the armed forces. What do you think the long-term, cumulative effect on the armed forces will be because of this practice?
JB: The beauty of the all-volunteer force is that the men and women joining are propelled by conscience and by gifting to join. I don't believe that will change. The greater likelihood is an adverse affect on those exiting and returning to civilian life. There may in fact be an element of hope in that part of the population. We saw that in the election process in November. To say prosecuting American Warriors for war crimes under this incredibly controversial and ill-conceived strategy is immoral, barely begins to describe the gravity of the problem.
From COIN, ROE, prosecutions and the repeal of DADT, the silence of the media and the people and the ambivalence of our Representatives, there is little evidence for the Warrior that there isn't some kind of conspiratorial effort to undermine their efforts on the battle field.
PH: You’ve been in touch with Allen West (now a Representative in the U.S. House). What do you think he will be able to do in influencing military policy and what do you think of his political future?
JB: I know a lot of people are expecting an awful lot from him. I believe his speeches during his campaign were sincere and I certainly agree with the vast majority of his comments concerning the war effort and our Warriors. If he is able to follow through with everything he said he wanted to do, I think his popularity will grow and his prospects for even the White House will grow exponentially. There is very little on the political spectrum to give hope to the Conservative element of society right now. Most of the front runners have been marginalized by one thing or another. What the Conservatives and Middle need right now is an inspiration; not rhetoric. Allen West has that potential and it will be good to see a current Warrior in the White House.
PH: Allen West has spoken out on behalf of the Leavenworth 10. What do you think is the best way for people to help jailed servicemen like the Leavenworth 10? And do you think it possible that people can make pardoning these servicemen a non-negotiable requirement for any candidate who wants to run for president in 2012?
JB: Absolutely! A full pardon for all of our Warriors should be the very first thing on the list - and non-negotiable. If someone can give me an example of a more reprehensible act than having civilian prosecutorial teams actively gleaning after action reports to see whom they might build their careers on, I want to hear it. Once the pardons are secure, those who actively sought to incarcerate them ought to be forced to fulfill those sentences themselves.
Any Presidential candidate not originating the idea of a full pardon for these men is not fit for the office of President of the United States.
PH: Why can’t we fight to win against the Islamic War on the West like the U.S. fought to win against
other Americans in the Civil War, and like the U.S. fought to win against the Axis powers in World War II (during which we did such things as leveling Dresden and effectively neutering Shintoism in Japan)?
JB: Our delicate Western sensibilities will not allow people to accept the possibility that there may in fact be an ideology with 1.3 billion adherents that has as one of it's doctrines, ritual murder. We can also thank the decline of the classical education and the abysmal failure of our Institutions of Indoctrination, formerly known as colleges.
We have an under-educated society that is becoming even more so with time, which has become increasingly more lazy and more dependent on government intervention in their lives. This translates into people expecting others to do their thinking for them.
In addition, it is harder to define an enemy like Islam or to compare it to the Empire of Japan or the Third Reich. They had definable borders, uniformed Armies, a definable Chain of Command and most importantly; a sense of civility. There was little question that hostilities would end once one side or the other realized their very existence was at stake. Islam has infested every aspect of every society and has been allowed to propagate unimpeded for a century. While elements in our society have been busy undermining our very understanding of National Sovereignty, the propaganda arm of Islam has been busy 'mainstreaming' it's image largely using the doctrine of Taqiyya. If people don't believe we have a moral authority to exist as a nation, how will they begin to understand the potential dangers of a competing ideology?
There is much that needs to be taught and much damage that needs to be undone. I am firmly convinced that sending our 17 and 18 year old population straight to college to be one of the most damaging things we can do to undo the effort to convince people it really is alright to be an American.
PH: David Kilcullen wrote The Accidental Guerilla, has apparently been highly influential on General Petraeus, and has been a driving force behind our COIN strategy. The New Yorker interviewed Mr. Kilcullen in 2006 and ran the following passage (HT:
Diana West): “‘If I were a Muslim, I’d probably be a jihadist,’ Kilcullen said as we sat in his office. ‘The thing that drives these guys—a sense of adventure, wanting to be part of the moment, wanting to be in the big movement of history that’s happening now—that’s the same thing that drives me, you know?’” What do you think of that statement? What do you think is the significance of a man so influential in our COIN strategy sympathizing with Muslims who murder American servicemen?
JB: It's disturbing to think someone in his position being so cavalier about something that is killing our Warriors. I also think he is in grave danger of inviting a Fatwah for being so insulting to Islamists. That statement gave more credence to street gangs in East LA than to the adherents of Islam. They are dedicated to their religion and their deity. Whatever motivations there may be in addition to that is superfluous. The Islamist is pragmatic and patient. They believe what they are doing and every American life they take, is ultimately for the glory of Allah. They also know we will not stay indefinitely and once we are gone, they will go right back to their business. The institution of COIN was based on a naïve assumption of the enemy - at best and will prove to have been a brutal failure and our Warriors will have paid the price.
The shame is that this is the current state of our entire government and the upper echelon of the military. It is almost as though they were collectively taken by a disease. How can you explain an entire sitting government either believing all of this or staying silent in spite of it? It is frustrating on many levels.
PH: The U.S. public and government dehumanized Terry Jones after he announced that he wanted to burn the Quran. They did this in an attempt to appease Muslims. Yet no one cares when, say, Christians are offended. Nor is there much outrage when Christians are slaughtered or persecuted—even in Iraq and
Afghanistan where American servicemen (including me—a Christian) risked or lost our lives in order to liberate and establish officially Islamic nations. Do you think Muslims strategically benefit from their violence over “being offended” and does COIN and our current strategy in Afghanistan play into their hands?
JB: Persecution of Christianity has been a favorite pastime since Jesus Christ first started his ministry and it will undoubtedly be so until the end. Understanding why that is so depends a lot on what hat you're wearing when you try to answer that question. As a Christian and knowing what the Bible says, I consider it something to fully expect. To look at it from a purely secular vantage point yields no rational answer. Asking why people are willing to show so much more deference to Islam in spite of it's recent history of violence is not going to render any sensible answers. It's like playing in a pit of vipers.
Whatever this enemy is, he is not an idiot. He is using every one of our weaknesses against us including our unwillingness to see him the way he sees himself. Prime Minister Erdogan, took great offense to President Obama's pronouncement that Islam was a religion of peace. The Taliban are armed and actively killing, I don't believe you could define their actions as peaceful especially when they are so prepared to take the lives of women and children.
COIN doctrine assumes the presence of three elements in the society; A weak or failing legitimate government, an innocent population and an unwelcome insurgent group. When we first entered Afghanistan we toppled the Taliban government. In 2009 we determined that Karzai and crew were the weakened government, the population was innocent and wanting help and that the Taliban was some outside insurgency. The last two were wrong. While every Afghan may not be an armed enemy, they are never-the-less largely Islamic and see us as unbelievers and many of the Taliban as family. The Taliban, while existing in factions from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, are an Afghan phenomenon. Even those who cross from Pakistan cannot legitimately be seen as foreign because the border is not recognized by the people on either side of the border. This strategy has done little but tie our hands and embolden the enemy.
PH: I wrote a column that noted how
the Department of Defense (DOD) has made “diversity” the preeminent reason for its existence. How much do you think political correctness factors into COIN and our strategy against the Islamic War on the West?
JB: If it gets you re-elected; great. If it doesn't bring in the vote, it is unlikely to be considered. I also think that the concepts of sovereignty and justice are heavily skewed to the flavor of the month. Right now Islam is the religious flavor of the month.
PH: Do you believe that the American People (and thus America herself) have the will to fight to win wars any longer?
JB: I think this country has been insulated from the ravages of war for so long that we no longer think there are any legitimate threats. That is very dangerous thinking but it is the predominant thinking in our society. I also think we have become an entitlement society and assume what we have we deserve and what we don't have we are being robbed of.
I believe there could be a series of circumstances that could turn this apathetic tide but they would have to be severe and very personal. In general and in our current state, I don't believe we think we have the moral authority to fight to defend ourselves, much less win and I think the vast majority of the population thinks it is someone else's job anyway.
PH: The World War II generation is called the Greatest Generation. Yet when that generation fought they fought with a generally united nation and when the Draft existed. What do you think of your son’s generation who fights today when
a large portion of the nation doesn’t support American troops and no Draft compels service?
JB: That generation rose to the occasion. I believe there is a segment of every generation that is great and it is measured by acts of selflessness. There is very little in society or even life in general that would be defined by acts of selflessness. The Armed Services of this nation will never have to wonder about that. The very act of joining ensures you will be acting apart from self. Those who have served are the best of their generation; period!
PH: Thank you for your time, Mr. Bernard. Is there anything you would like to say in closing?
JB: I thank you for your time and this opportunity. I think we have covered the main points of the subject except to remind people that every nation has a King. In their wisdom, the Founding Fathers established the People as the King of the United States. The King has abdicated his throne and it is high time he return to his responsibilities and force his elected representation to do what is right instead of what is convenient.
Paul Hair serves in the U.S. Army Reserves as a non-commissioned officer; he is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has worked as a civilian in both the government and private sectors. His views are his own and he in no way represents the Army Reserves or any other part of the U.S. government.