MEDIA ROOTS — Five years ago, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling courageously asserted USA’s military generals were failing in their duty to provide policymakers with candid appraisals of war. Unfortunately, generalship has only deteriorated since then. Today, Pentagon leaders lie directly through euphemism, omission, and talk of progress.
Generals euphemize in order to shape public discourse in their favor and to mislead their listeners. By employing euphemisms precisely, Pentagon officials corral listeners’ thought processes into the confines of a perspective, which portrays the generals as benevolent protectors. For example, USA’s generals conduct military operations, while the opposing force conducts ambushes and acts of war. Any locals, which resist the generals’ plans are deemed insurgents and militants, while those who resist, the generals’ enemies, are termed rebels. Perceive the distinction. The terms, insurgents and militants invoke imagery of unjustified revolt against a benign authority, while rebels stand up for justice despite overwhelming odds. Meanwhile, the Pentagon refers to random citizens who are swept up in the obscenity of night raids (a.k.a. village stability operations) as insurgent facilitators. These citizens are then placed in administrative detention, instead of solitary confinement. Administrative detention recalls a process of paperwork, regulated justice, and accountability. When USA’s generals employ this phrase, they deliberately place the listeners’ thought processes within the compassionate confines of supervision and order, while actively obviating any potential questions of human rights or public liability.
Nomenclature cushions the listeners’ ears. When taken off the streets, the enemy experiences extraordinary rendition instead of a kidnapping. Generals ordain mercenaries and kidnappers as military contractors and glorified agents, respectively. Once in custody, an insurgent might experience an isolated case of abuse or sanctioned enhanced interrogation, certainly not torture. Meanwhile USA’s generals implement a policy of targeted killings, otherwise known as terrorist atrocities when the brown-skinned Arab implements the same policy (Chomsky: 24). When civilian casualties inevitably occur, generals euphemize their deaths as collateral damage, a term which is not recognized anywhere in humanitarian international law (Johnson: 25).
To imply a kinder, transient military presence, the Pentagon traditionally employs euphemisms of outpost, facility, or station when referring to overseas military bases. After ramping up the so-called War on Terror, generals conjured up new euphemisms like forward operating location, defense staging post, and contingency operating site, while clinging to classics like camp, which invoke imagery of an ephemeral hiker. Generals describe any setbacks as operational pauses or indications of a desperate enemy. Generals term regulating documents like status of forces agreements as visiting forces agreements, again implying that the generals’ troops are merely spending the night in your resource-rich land, which the generals refer to as a theater instead of a warzone. When the Pentagon overstays its welcome, it leaves behind a residual training force instead of a continuing military occupation.
When generals are unable to negotiate judicial immunity for their troops, they redeploy and re-posture them, instead of withdrawing. Even the Pentagon’s weaponry is named with compassion, as the LGM-118 missile is known as the Peacekeeper! When reforming military healthcare and retirement packages, all while claiming to care for their people, generals embrace terminology like flexibility vice cost-cutting and reforming vice gutting. When defusing concern over costly projects like the F-22 Raptor, Pentagon officials use the term additional contract requirement instead of honestly discussing the waste associated with overpriced, underperforming weapons platforms. And the Wheel of Euphemisms goes ‘round. Mendacity through euphemism is a sly way to manipulate public opinion and deceive policymakers, and is one way that USA’s generals fail to perform their duties.
When not lying through euphemism, generals simply omit truths about civilian casualties, women’s rights, and war funding. General Stanley McChrystal (ret.), who in uniform was once incapable of distinguishing between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, omitted discussion of USA’s role in creating civilian casualties from Senate testimony. Although he once privately admitted the harm of civilian casualties, McChrystal insisted publicly that the Pentagon’s strategy was working. Even after being dismissed for insubordination, McChrystal maintained ties to the Pentagon and continued to omit truths. Nine months after getting fired, McChrystal proposed that in order to defeat a fluid network like the Taliban, USA’s forces should become a flexible network themselves. (This concept was later repeated by General Martin Dempsey). While finding room for corporate lingo like “robust communications connectivity” and “shared purpose,” McChrystal omitted any mention of civilian casualties from his “win” formula. For the record, the United Nations estimates over 10,000 civilian fatalities in Afghanistan from 2006 through 2011. The truth, which generals like McChrystal omit, is that USA “lost” in Afghanistan a long time ago, due in large part to civilian casualties. Today, approaching two years removed from military service, McChrystal still insists that the Afghan population wants USA’s military: “They would like an American base somewhere” with enough “people on that base — say 15,000 — to show the world [they’ve] got… American power… right over [their] shoulder,” echoing delusional Pentagon rhetoric, which “the Afghan people desire [USA’s presence].”
By avoiding qualitative discussions of women’s rights, generals perpetuate the perception that “women continue to make progress in Afghanistan.” In contrast to Pentagon omissions, domestic violence against women has increased in Afghanistan since USA’s 2001 invasion. Cosmetic fixes, like female representation in parliament, belie a reality where misogyny reigns supreme. As of 2011, ten years into the war, Afghanistan was ranked the most dangerous country for women in the world.
To sustain their flush coffers and interminable wars, generals avoid placing budgetary figures in perspective. For example, the annual United States’ military budget has increased from roughly $261 billion to roughly $700 billion in just eleven years. The United States spent more on war in Afghanistan in one year, adjusted for inflation, than it spent on the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, and the Spanish-American War combined. One will not hear generals discuss spending roughly $1 million taxpayer dollars per year to sustain each service-member that they deploy to Afghanistan. Lastly, generals rarely acknowledge that they spend roughly $10 billion taxpayer dollars per month in Afghanistan. For a full accounting of expenditures, generals must also factor in payments to the Pakistani military, the Frontier Corps, and disbursements for access to regional air bases, all of which they rarely disclose. Generals lie to policymakers through omission, as the cases of Stanley McChrystal, Afghan women, and war funding illustrate.
Talk of Progress
Admiral James Stavridis once unintentionally alluded to the way in which USA’s generals lie. Despite tremendous obstacles, Stavridis didn’t “see any challenge… that we can’t overcome by training the Afghan security forces, protecting the people of Afghanistan, working closely with our friends and allies… and doing exactly what I’m doing right now – strategic communication [and] telling the story – because it will be a story of success over time in Afghanistan.” Lying repeatedly—what Stavridis calls strategic communication—involves frequently asserting that progress is occurring in Afghanistan.
Upon taking the leadership reins in Afghanistan in July 2011, General John Allen set the bar by affirming that “together, we will prevail.” Allen insists that considerable progress has been made in Afghanistan and that “security in many places… is near normal.” Allen maintains that progress in Afghanistan is tangible and viable, and that the insurgency is “severely degraded.” He claims that “the insurgents are on the defensive. They are losing territory. They are losing support.” In this spirit, Allen encourages Congress to “stay the course” in Afghanistan during this time of optimism. Allen insists that “we have a sound campaign plan” and that “we can accomplish our objectives, without question.” To overcome any remaining skepticism, General Allen points to the numbers as justification for “progress” and “momentum,” boasting that in the past year, the Afghan security forces grew from 276,000 to 330,000 individuals. Allen claims that these security forces are “doing a good job” and “better than we thought.” In operational terms, he alleges that “42 percent [of operations] were Afghan-led” and that Afghanistan’s national police force and army has “passed the 320,000-member mark.” The United States’ top general in Afghanistan lies well and lies often.
Others point to quantity over quality. Lieutenant General William Caldwell, commander of the NATO Training Mission Afghanistan, lets his deputy boast about “growing to a force of 352,000 – 195,000 in the [Afghan] army and 157,000 in the police” by October 2012. General Caldwell hails these forces as having made “tremendous” progress. His deputy continues, proclaiming that “we have over 3,100 Afghans assigned to training instructor positions with a very deliberate, proven program of certification that takes place.” Others assert that the National Army and Police have grown by more than 100,000 members since President Obama’s 2009 strategy realignment, with another 50,000 slated to join by the end of the summer of 2012. With enough repetition, generals use numbers to justify imaginary progress.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta leads the charge in asserting that significant progress has been made combatting Afghanistan’s insurgency. He vows that “we need to keep the momentum up and we need to keep the enemy on its heels… We have to continue the pressure [sic] on the enemy.” He states that “we are making progress in Afghanistan… violence is down [and] the insurgents have lost momentum.” So now, according to Panetta, not only does America have the momentum, but the “insurgents” have lost theirs. Panetta is very consistent.
On 12 January, he asserted that “we see continued progress in Afghanistan. It remains challenging, but we have begun to enable a transition to the Afghan government.” On 1 February, Panetta repeated: “We have weakened the Taliban. We’ve made good progress in going after them. The level of violence is down. It continues to be down.” On 11 March, Panetta responded to SSgt Robert Bales’ killing spree by stating: “This terrible incident does not reflect our shared values or the progress we have made together.” On 12 March, Panetta claimed to have made progress in terms of Afghanistan’s ability to govern, “control and secure itself,” stating “the level of violence is… down significantly over these last five years.” On 15 March, Panetta claimed, “we have made good progress here in Afghanistan… Levels of violence are down. We’ve weakened the Taliban.” Overall, Secretary Panetta reaffirms that “we’ve made good progress… in terms of security, particularly in the south and southwest,” emphasizing a “consensus that we are on the right path. We’ve made good progress, [and although] there are hard times ahead… we remain unified in the goal of achieving a stable Afghanistan that can govern and secure itself for the future.” Not to be outdone, Secretary of State Clinton hit all of the key talking points when testifying to the House Foreign Affairs Committee: tremendous progress, momentum, pressure on the enemy, peace process, and building capacity.
US Admiral James Stavridis, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, “can see the progress,” affirming that he’s “confident we’re going to succeed.” Stavridis reminisces: “[Looking] back on three years in command… is where I have seen the most progress.” Stavridis concedes that “despite a very challenging couple of weeks,” [read: massacres, civilian casualties, Quran burnings, and green-on-blue deaths], he is “quite confident that our fundamental strategy remains sound.”
Lieutenant General David Rodriguez, commander of US Army Forces Command, concurs that USA is making headway: “Last year saw the implementation of a plan that demanded focus and synchronization, and we saw that where we do that, we make steady progress.” Irresponsibly embracing corporate jargon, Rodriguez swears that progress is occurring “through synchronizing efforts in time and space.”
Lieutenant General Scaparrotti, deputy commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, has “personally seen” progress across Afghanistan, remarking that “we certainly have the momentum, and we’ve got the resolve to succeed.”
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little summarizes his superiors’ assessments: “We’re making progress. We have put the enemy on its heels in many parts of the country. Doesn’t mean that there isn’t work to be done — there is — but let’s not let the events of the past week steer us away from the reality that we have made significant progress throughout the country.”
Sometimes the lies are quite detailed. General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, points to “substantial progress” in Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley. Amos remarks bluntly that “the Taliban have been driven out… those that wanted to stay have been killed, and those who didn’t want to stay have squirted out.” General James Mattis adds the Taliban are “losing leadership, ground, logistics, and public support.” Major General Richard Mills elaborates, stating “our intent is to simply overwhelm [the Taliban] with an increased operational tempo that he’ll be unable to match.” Major General James Terry takes off where Mills left off, discussing his own regional leadership: “A lot has changed during our ten months out there on the ground… we have made progress… Most notable is that insurgent momentum has been put in check and we are increasing security in key districts.”
Meanwhile, the Pentagon shirks severe obstacles as minor bumps in the road. Desertions from the Afghan army and police units are euphemized as attrition and described as “less than what the figures reflect” because Afghan personnel “who are taken off the rolls later return to their units.” Violence and bold assassinations are “expected,” while officials emphasize “the many successes we’ve enjoyed over the Taliban in the past year.” The spectacular nature and frequency of recent assassinations are explained away as the result of the Taliban’s inability to “mount a big military campaign.” Army Major General Allyn supports this claim when professing that “ruthless, desperate, and inexplicable acts of insurgents” against civilians are the predictable side effects of the Afghan-NATO partnership. Or, as Defense Secretary Panetta puts it, “these kinds of attacks – sporadic attacks and assassination attempts – are more a reflection of the fact that they are losing their ability to attack our forces on a broader scale.” Even attacks against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, an area previously thought to be immune to Taliban penetration, are spun as the actions of a desperate few.
Above all, generals lie perniciously to Congress and the USA’s public when arguing that USA occupies Afghanistan to prevent it from becoming a planning area for future attacks on USA. As the attacks of 7-7 and 11-M illustrate, terrorist plots can originate from any country, regardless of location, political orientation, or level of democracy. Therefore, no matter how long USA’s forces stay in Central Asia, future plots could originate from Afghanistan, Laos, Bolivia, the United States, Lithuania, or any other country. Operating against this logic, NATO Joint Command states their intent “to be here to  any beyond… [They are] determined to work toward [their] goal of ridding Afghanistan of these terrorist sanctuaries.”
USA’s generals codify their lies in the Pentagon’s bi-annual Report on Progress toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, which is known informally as the Pentagon’s “congressionally-mandated report card.” Critical minds ponder why the Pentagon is allowed to rate its own performance. As it stands, nothing stops generals from giving themselves good marks on every Report. True to form, the Pentagon uses the word “progress” over 100 times within its Report on Progress.
Exceptions to this tradition of lying are granted to officials who ignore the biggest problems associated with the so-called Global War on Terror while profiting from criticism aimed at US intelligence. Criticism from Major General Michael Flynn, the former top US intelligence officer in Afghanistan, is a great example. Flynn writes:
“The vast intelligence apparatus is unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which U.S. and allied forces operate and the people they seek to persuade. Ignorant of local economics and landowners, hazy about who the powerbrokers are and how they might be influenced, incurious about the correlations between various development projects and the levels of cooperation among villagers, and disengaged from people in the best position to find answers.”
Since he didn’t stray outside the Pentagon’s ideological boundaries, Flynn is recognized as a discerning leader, a man of temerity, and is promoted to Lieutenant General. Others gain by framing their criticism as simply institutional challenges. Former Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Admiral Eric Olson (ret.), once criticized US intelligence in this light:
“We generally don’t speak their languages, we don’t understand their histories, we don’t know their families, we don’t know how work is done, we don’t know how money is made, we don’t know all the nuances, we don’t know the effects, truly, of climate, of terrain, of religion, of culture, in these regions.”
Olson’s brief sparkle of candor occurred en route to retirement. Immediately after retiring from military service, Olson profited from his critique by working for corporations—like Iridium Communications and Mission Essential Personnel—which rectify the very flaws Olson had highlighted while in uniform a few months earlier.
If General Flynn or Admiral Olson were truly honest, they’d assess the big picture. Former CIA official Antonio Mendez’s analysis of Vietnam, a catastrophe from which we still haven’t learned, provides today’s high-ranking officers with a strong critical foundation:
“America’s costly involvement in Vietnam was a tragic defeat. From the perspective of an intelligence war, we had failed to understand the fundamental nature of the enemy. Successive administrations and CIA leadership could only perceive the North Vietnamese through the lens of the Cold War, as surrogates of their Communist masters in Moscow and Beijing (Mendez: 121).”
Any general could switch up some names and create the following accuracy:
“America’s costly involvement in Afghanistan was a tragic defeat. From the perspective of an intelligence war, we had failed to understand the fundamental nature of the enemy. Successive administrations and Pentagon leadership could only perceive the Taliban through the lens of the Global War on Terror, as alleged allies of al-Qaeda.”
For various reasons, some of which were explored above, USA’s generals avoid criticizing the big picture, choosing instead to lie continuously. The generals’ subordinates then choose to tread water on the battlefield and pursue deeply flawed strategic designs while generals wriggle from one pretext to the next: eliminating al-Qaeda, to fighting the Taliban, to nation-building, to conducting a counterinsurgency campaign, to training police and army forces. Any excuse will do, as long as the Pentagon maintains a military presence in Central Asia.
Lessons Never Learned
USA’s generalship was poor when Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling composed his groundbreaking exposé in 2007. Since then, the caliber of US generalship has declined dramatically. USA deserves honesty from her senior defense officials. Any candid general would acknowledge that the Pentagon has deployed forces against “low-level troublemakers”—Abu Sayyaf, Boko Haram, the Taliban, Lord’s Resistance Army, Al-Shabbab, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Haqqani, and FARC—that posed no threat to the United States of America. Contrary to duty and courage, Pentagon officials instead lie continuously through euphemism, omission, and reference to ambiguities like progress. Harry Pendel rings in USA’s ears, reminding us: “If it wasn’t a con, you wouldn’t go on saying it, would you, General?”
Written by Christian Sorensen
And edited by Felipe Messina for Media Roots