Thursday, November 26, 2009

Running the War in Iraq, by Major General Jim Molan

Major General Jim Molan was asked to go to Iraq in 2004 by then Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Peter Cosgrove.

Strangely enough, he was sent there without any real mission in mind, not even to work with the Australian soldiers. Hence Molan was in the unusual position of trying to find something to do in Iraq. Of Molan’s unemployment dilemma in Iraq, he writes, "A further complication for my aspiration to find an honest job was that I still didn’t have access to the highest level of US intelligence. Furthermore, I had to find something worthwhile, or I might as well go home."

There’s no real explanation in the book as to why this bizarre situation arose in the first place. In the end, he puts himself forward and eventually scores a job as Chief of Operations. Is this how wars are really run?

This is a rather strange and unsettling memoir. Maybe because the events it describes are still so close to ‘the fog of war’. Who knows?

Molan comes across as a simple, straightforward high level soldier, a ‘practical’ man (Molan’s self description). He strikes you as an old fashioned, conservative type. In fact, Molan seems like a kind of boring yet idealised cut out from a pre-war generation. As I read, the milieu of Barry Humphries’ Sandy Stone character kept coming to mind.

Contrast this character description against the awesome and terrifying war technology that Molan was using to kill insurgents, and unfortunately, the civilians that happened to be in the way. Molan was in charge during the controversial battle of Fallujah. The author describes how he can direct all of this bombing of insurgents from a comfortable office while enjoying a cup of tea.

‘This decision about collateral damage is no different in law from the decision made by a lieutenant platoon commander crouched down on the side of a road calling for an air strike on a position from which the enemy are firing at him and his troops. I just did it in a much more comfortable place while drinking Steve’s tea."

The book is full of those annoying acronyms that the American military uses. The worst though is what’s known as a ‘CDE’, which stands for collateral damage estimate. This is where the soldier tries to weigh up how many civilians could be killed by a strike.

Molan is quite dismissive of those who criticise the coalition for killing innocents. Yet as the acronym CDE shows, killing innocent people is something that is factored into the assessments for carrying out bombings.

Molan likes to highlight how the military agonises over the legality of what it does, having to consider key factors like, ‘proportionality, humanity, discrimination and necessity’, but I wasn’t so convinced. Then again, it’s easy for me to say so sitting here from my desk, with no experience of what soldiers experience in Iraq. Then again, if that’s how the debate is to be conducted, then only people with first hand experience should be allowed to comment on the war in Iraq, as it is fought.

Also of interest in the book is Molan’s attitude to the media.

"For many months now I had seen daily examples of the information war running in a parallel reality to the actual war. The information fight required less physical courage and sacrifice, but was just as important as the combat on the ground. Brigadier General Erv Lessel, who headed the strategic communications section in my operations branch, often reminded us of the dictum that ‘public information turns tactical success into strategic victory.’ I liked to look at it from the reverse: there is little point in winning the fight if no-one knows, cares or believes what you say."

You get the strong impression that Molan would really like to control the media and hence get rid of sniping journalists who are always disseminating lies, falsehoods, pre-conceived ideas and biases.

This is a book that tries to simplify horrific war conditions into an uncomplicated, straightforward narrative. Maybe this is what you have to do so as not to go mad. Whatever the case, Major General Jim Molan remains a creepy character for me after having read this memoir. His mix of simple, unaffected soldier and cold-blooded technocrat left me feeling very spooked.

This article by Jim Molan on Afghanistan is of interest:

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