U.S. military… random thoughts

A former student is thinking of going to law school to then become a JAG. He shared with me some thoughts on a book Saving Sandoval, by Craig Drummond. According to the blurb:

Saving Sandoval is the true account of the defense of U.S. Army Specialist Jorge G. Sandoval, Jr. Sandoval, a 22-year old infantry paratrooper deployed to the forward operating base of Iskan during the enemy uprisings of 2007 in Iraq. Iskan was located in the “Triangle of Death,” which at the time was the most dangerous area in Iraq; arguably the world. Sandoval’s unit began to take heavy casualties during the increased violence in the region. As the unit began to respond and regroup from their heavy losses, Sandoval was re-assigned from his regular infantry team to his unit’s most elite group–the sniper section… On one of his first missions he was guided by the sniper section leader, Staff Sergeant Hensley… Sandoval was placed in the shooting position while Hensley served as his observer… Hensley spotted a man serving as a lookout for the enemy who had recently attacked U.S. and coalition units… The man was in civilian clothing, posing as a farmer cutting grass. This was consistent with most of the insurgents and enemy in Iraq, who often wore civilian clothing and were not easily distinguishable from the civilians who resided in the nearby villages….Given all of the information known at the time, Hensley directed Sandoval to take the shot. Sandoval complied… Many of the actions of the entire sniper section came under question, particularly an event two weeks later in which a suspected insurgent was shot at close range with a pistol by another member of Sandoval’s team… Eventually Sandoval faced a court-martial for murder, for his first shooting as a sniper…Saving Sandoval is the story of the trial … The book quotes testimony from both the pre-trial hearings and the trial itself, which took place in a makeshift courtroom on a U.S. military installation just outside of Baghdad.

My reaction was: Having read some summaries of Saving Sandoval… sounds like an interesting book…. I’d probably be more inclined to invest in reading if it were an analysis by someone more removed from the interests of the actors… Drummond as the JAG would seem to have been a full participant…. so it is more primary material than broader analysis it seems…. Newspaper accounts suggest this was not just some kind of anti-war trumped-up charge. It was members of the unit who were concerned about abuses, it seems.

Like many of my generation, my “prior” on the military as a culture was strongly shaped by My Lai, subsequent cover-up, subsequent pardon, and broader patterns consistent with that throughout the whole Vietnam war continuing all the way to the present where we have “swiftboating” as a word. The Abu Ghraib revelations, the many disclosures made public by Chelsea Manning, including the video of the helicopter shooting of Iraqis (insurgents and civilians) in 2007, and the audio that accompanied that, also suggested to me that 30 years later many units in the military continue to function with largely unchanged culture. MLK and Malcolm X, had much to say about the culture of militarization in the US back in the 1960s. The various sex and gender scandals in many branches of the military are not reassuring. I have also been very influenced by President Clinton’s missile bombing of the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory and likely fabricated evidence to justify the bombing.

Generals might say “yea, but our culture is better than every other military” and that might indeed be true. I don’t have emotions about it, just impressionistic priors… I think there is much room for principled JAG’s to do good work, and room for reform, and for strong leaders with more integrity, and for more civilian oversight, and for more transparency, and for less hubris and more humility. Unfortunately, a sentence like that (and the whole blog) post, is likely to be taken by some (and perhaps even some relatives) as meaning I am anti-military, America-hater, etc. Nothing could be further from the truth. But people who think that way are rarely concerned about truth and the critical thinking needed to discern truth.

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
This entry was posted in United States. Bookmark the permalink.