"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Former President George H.W. Bush waged a secret campaign over several months early this year to remove Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The elder Bush went so far as to recruit Rumsfeld’s potential replacement, personally asking a retired four-star general if he would accept the position, a reliable source close to the general told me. But the former president’s effort failed, apparently rebuffed by the current president. When seven retired generals who had been commanders in Iraq demanded Rumsfeld’s resignation in April, the younger Bush leapt to his defense. “I’m the decider and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain,” he said. His endorsement of Rumsfeld was a rebuke not only to the generals but also to his father.
The elder Bush’s intervention was an extraordinary attempt to rescue simultaneously his son, the family legacy and the country. The current president had previously rejected entreaties from party establishment figures to revamp his administration with new appointments. There was no one left to approach him except his father. This effort to pluck George W. from his troubles is the latest episode in a recurrent drama — from the drunken young man challenging his father to go “mano a mano,” to the father pulling strings to get the son into the Texas Air National Guard and helping salvage his finances from George W.’s mismanagement of Harken Energy. For the father, parental responsibility never ends. But for the son, rebellion continues. When journalist Bob Woodward asked George W. Bush if he had consulted his father before invading Iraq, he replied, “He is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.”
The former president, a practitioner of foreign policy realism, was intruding on the president’s parallel reality. But the realist was trying to shake the fantasist in vain. “The president believes the talking points he’s given and repeats on progress in Iraq,” a Bush administration national security official told me. Bush redoubles his efforts, projects his firmness, in the conviction that the critics lack his deeper understanding of Iraq that allows him to see through the fog of war to the Green Zone as a city on a hill.
Just as his father cannot break Bush’s enchantment with “victory,” so the revelation of the Haditha massacre does not cause him to change his policy. For him, the alleged incident is solely about the individual Marines involved; military justice will deal with them. It’s as though the horrific event had nothing to do with the war. Haditha, too, exists in a bubble.
Before the Iraq war, the administration received and dismissed warnings of the dangers of a prolonged occupation from the State Department, the CIA and the military. A month before the invasion, in February 2003, the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute published a paper by a team of its experts, “Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario.” Civil war, sectarian militias, anarchy, suicide bombers and widespread insurgency — if there was a lengthy occupation — were predicted: “Ethnic, tribal, and religious schisms could produce civil war or fracture the state after Saddam is deposed … The longer a U.S. occupation of Iraq continues, the more danger exists that elements of the Iraqi population will become impatient and take violent measures to hasten the departure of U.S. forces.” But the Bush administration simply ignored this cautionary analysis. Among the report’s cogent warnings was that insurgents could incite violence to provoke repression, forcing U.S. troops into an uncontrollable “action-reaction cycle.” Nearly three years after the invasion, the Marines in Haditha were apparently caught up in that whirlwind.
On Nov. 19, 2005, a roadside bomb blew up an armored vehicle of Kilo Company of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, patrolling in the upper Euphrates Valley, and Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas was killed. For hours afterward, members of the unit apparently murdered 24 civilians, including women, children and old people, in cold blood. Kilo Company was on its third tour of duty and had engaged in the battle of Fallujah, in which the city of 300,000, held by insurgents, was leveled.
The coverup at Haditha reportedly began instantly. However, an Iraqi journalism student shot a video the day after of the bloodstained and bullet-riddled houses where the massacre had occurred. That video made its way to an Iraqi human rights group and finally to a correspondent from Time magazine. When Time made its first queries, the Marine spokesman, Capt. Jeffrey S. Pool, who had issued the first statement on Haditha as an action against terrorists months earlier, told reporters that they were falling for al-Qaida propaganda. “I cannot believe you’re buying any of this,” he wrote in an e-mail. Nonetheless, word reached Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the second-highest-ranking U.S. military officer in Iraq, that there had been no investigation and he ordered one immediately.
Chiarelli, as Thomas E. Ricks reported in the Washington Post, “is an unusual general in today’s Army, with none of the ‘good old boy’ persona seen in many other top commanders. He had praised an article by a British officer that was sharply critical of U.S. officers in Iraq for using tactics that alienated the population. He wanted U.S. forces to operate differently than they had been doing.”
The article that influenced Chiarelli was published in the Army’s Military Review, in its November-December 2005 issue, and was written by British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster, a deputy commander training the Iraqi military. In it he wrote that U.S. officers showed “cultural insensitivity” that “arguably amounted to institutional racism” and “fueled the insurgency.” Aylwin-Foster also argued that the U.S. doctrine of “too kinetic” war fighting was part and parcel of its “cultural insensitivity,” accelerating the alienation of Iraqis and stimulating the insurgency. “In short,” he wrote, “the U.S. Army has developed over time a singular focus on conventional warfare, of a particularly swift and violent style, which left it ill-suited to the kind of operation it encountered as soon as conventional warfighting ceased to be the primary focus in OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom).” He concluded that the prevailing notion of military victory was self-undermining, contributing to failure, and that the United States in Iraq needed to rethink its fundamental doctrine: “The realization that all military activity is subordinate to political intent, and must be attuned accordingly: mere destruction of the enemy is not the answer.”
Aylwin-Foster’s article appeared at about the same time as the incident at Haditha, providing a broader analysis of the problems that underlay it than simply battlefield stress, though that, too, was obviously an important factor. His article was one of many red flags. He even quoted a U.S. colonel: “If I were treated like this, I’d be a terrorist!”
On May 30, the new Iraqi ambassador to the United States, Samir Sumaidaie, appeared on CNN, where he claimed that U.S. Marines had murdered his young cousin in Haditha, in an incident that occurred before the massacre. “Well, they said that they shot him in self-defense. I find that hard to believe because A) he is not at all a violent — I mean, I know the boy. He was [in] a second-year engineering course in the university. Nothing to do with violence. All his life has been studies and intellectual work. Totally unbelievable. And, in fact, they had no weapon in the house … I believe he was killed intentionally. I believe that he was killed unnecessarily. And unfortunately, the investigations that took place after that sort of took a different course and concluded that there was no unlawful killing. I would like further investigation.”
The next day, May 31, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that U.S. attacks against civilians had become a “daily phenomenon” by troops who “do not respect the Iraqi people. They crush them with their vehicles and kill them just on suspicion. This is completely unacceptable.” Maliki’s outburst revealed that opposition to the occupation has become the basis of political legitimacy in Iraqi politics. Haditha brought this reality boiling to the surface.
The Bush way of war has been ahistorical and apolitical, and therefore warped strategically, putting absolute pressure on the military to provide an outcome it cannot provide — “victory.” From the start, Bush has placed the military at a disadvantage, and not only because he put the Army in the field in insufficient numbers, setting it upon a task it could not accomplish. U.S. troops are trained for conventional military operations, not counterinsurgency, which requires the utmost restraint in using force. The doctrinal fetish of counterterrorism substitutes for and frustrates counterinsurgency efforts.
Conventional fighting takes two primary forms: chasing and killing foreign fighters as if they constituted the heart of the Sunni insurgency and seeking battles like Fallujah as if any would be decisive. Where battles don’t exist, assaults on civilian populations, often provoked by insurgents, are misconceived as battles. While this is not a version of some video game, it is still an illusion.
Many of the troops are on their third or fourth tour of duty, and 40 percent of them are reservists whose training and discipline are not up to the standards of their full-time counterparts. Trained for combat and gaining and holding territory, equipped with superior firepower and technology, they are unprepared for the disorienting and endless rigors of irregular warfare. The Marines, in particular, are trained for “kinetic” warfare, constantly in motion, and imbued with a warrior culture that sets them apart from the Army. Marines, however well disciplined, are especially susceptible because of their perpetual state of high adrenaline to the inhuman pressures of irregular warfare.
As Bush’s approach has stamped failure on the military, he insists ever more intensely on the inevitability of victory if only he stays the course. Ambiguity and flexibility, essential elements of any strategy for counterinsurgency, are his weak points. Bush may imagine a scene in which the insurgency is conclusively defeated, perhaps even a signing ceremony, as on the USS Missouri, or at least an acknowledgment, a scrap of paper, or perhaps the silence of the dead, all of them. But his infatuation with a purely military solution blinds him to how he thwarts his own intentions. Jeffrey Record, a prominent strategist at a U.S. military war college, told me: “Perhaps worse still, conventional wisdom is dangerously narcissistic. It completely ignores the enemy, assuming that what we do determines success or failure. It assumes that only the United States can defeat the United States, an outlook that set the United States up for failure in Vietnam and for surprise in Iraq.”
Haditha is a symptom of the fallacy of Bush’s military solution. The alleged massacre occurred after the administration’s dismissal of repeated warnings about the awful pressures on an army of occupation against an insurgency. Conflating a population that broadly supports an insurgency with a terrorist enemy and indoctrinating the troops with a sense of revenge for Sept. 11 easily leads to an erasure of the distinction between military and civilian targets. Once again, a commander in chief has failed to learn the lessons of Algeria and Vietnam.
Bush’s abrogation of the Geneva Conventions has set an example that in this unique global war on terror, in order to combat those who do not follow the rules of war, we must also abandon those rules. This week a conflict has broken out in the Pentagon over Rumsfeld’s proposed revision of the Army Field Manual for interrogation of prisoners, which would excise Common Article Three of the Geneva Conventions that forbids “humiliating and degrading treatment.” And, this week, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., proposed a bill that would make the administration provide “a full accounting on any clandestine prison or detention facility currently or formerly operated by the United States Government, regardless of location, where detainees in the global war on terrorism are or were being held,” the number of detainees, and a “description of the interrogation procedures used or formerly used on detainees at such prison or facility and a determination, in coordination with other appropriate officials, on whether such procedures are or were in compliance with United States obligations under the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture.” The administration vigorously opposes the bill.
Above all, the Bush way of war violates the fundamental rule of warfare as defined by military philosopher Karl von Clausewitz: War is politics by other means. In other words, it is not the opposite of politics, or its substitute, but its instrument, and by no means its only one. “Subordinating the political point of view to the military would be absurd,” wrote Clausewitz, “for it is policy that creates war. Policy is the guiding intelligence and war only the instrument, not vice versa.”
Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, meanwhile, reinforces Bush’s rigidity as essential to “transformational” warfare; by now, however, the veneer has been peeled off to reveal sheer self-justification. Rumsfeld is incapable of telling the president that there is no battle, no campaign, that can win the war. Saving Rumsfeld is Bush’s way of staying the course. But it also sends a signal of unaccountability from the top down. The degradation of U.S. forces in Iraq is a direct consequence of the derangement of political leadership in Washington. And not even the elder Bush can persuade the president that his way of war is a debacle.
Sidney Blumenthal, a former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, writes a column for Salon and the Guardian of London. His new book is titled "How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime." He is a senior fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security.More Sidney Blumenthal.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)