When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.
– Rudyard Kipling
Despite the impression that numerous posts may have created, I don’t always conduct consultations in my office. I do, however, tack a considerable surcharge on my usual hourly rates to visit clients for appointments, and that usually acts as effective leverage to encourage them to come see me instead. And besides, as numerous other posts have also noted, my office is a pretty cool place to hang out for an hour or two anyway. But with some clients, cost is no object, they have money to burn – clients like the Department of Defense, for instance.
And so it was this morning, very bright and very early, that I found myself in the A-Ring of the Pentagon for a rather lengthy and quite profitable consultation regarding coordination of land, sea and air logistics to support President Trump’s brand-new Space Force (that’s about all I can reveal about the subject of my meeting, however).
Shortly afterward, around ten o’clock, as I was leaving, Colonel Nimrod Palterer, Special Deputy Under-assistant for Afghanistan to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, buttonholed me in the corridor.
“Collins!” he exclaimed, nearly shouting, looking around nervously, then gesturing to a closed door which lead to a meeting room. “Quick, in there! Nobody’s using that right now.”
Since Palterer has been a lucrative client and highly useful DoD business contact for a number of years, I thought it best to comply. The room was, as he stated, indeed unoccupied. He gestured to a heavily upholstered chair at the end of a long oval cherry wood finished table with about twenty other such chairs placed around it. Numerous flags of the United States and various units of its armed forces stood arranged against the walls on both sides. Palterer took a seat next to me and leaned over, speaking in a low, conspiratorial voice.
“We’ve got twenty minutes before the next meeting starts, so we’ve got to move fast,” he opened.
“Why not just come down to my office?” I inquired.
“I can’t right now,” he confided, “they’ve cut off my discretionary funding.”
“In that case,” I asked, “what do I charge this to?”
“Oh, Christ,” Palterer moaned, “nothing, okay? Just… just… keep it on the Q-T, alright? When the funding gets re-instated, I swear I’ll make it up to you.”
As I said, my relationship with this particular client has historically made me quite a bundle in the federal consulting business, so I acquiesced. “Understood,” I replied. “What’s up?”
“The [expletive] Afghanistan Papers!” he hissed.
“Oh,” I realized, “now I see – you’re upset because you’re a big fish in running the Afghanistan spin cycle.”
“Big fish?” he spat. “I’m a [expletive] whale, damn it! And I’ve been spinning DoD press releases and congressional briefing papers since October seventh, 2001. [Expletive], Collins, in twenty-three [expletive] months, it will be twenty [expletive] years that I’ve been shoveling [expletive] for these ingrates! You do something like that for twenty years, Collins, they’re supposed to give you a plaque, a commendation, a Rolex, a fancy dinner party at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a big fat bonus and a promotion, not cut off your money and get ready to hang you out to dry for being the mastermind of a scheme to deceive the American public!”
“But… well,” I carefully replied, “it is more or less the case that it was your job to make sure the war in Afghanistan looked like a success for the United States and NATO no matter what actually happened, wasn’t it?”
“Oh, come on, Collins!” he protested, “don’t play [expletive] Pollyanna with me after taking all that DoD money giving me advice on how to [expletive] lie without really doing it. You and I both know that DoD combat report public and congressional relations is all about statistics, surveys, numbers and… ah.. creative interpretation of after-action reports.”
“Now wait a second,” I remarked, “you and I also both know how dangerous it can be to get too creative with the interpretations. I always cautioned you about getting overzealous with the strategies we identified, and…”
“Identified?” Palterer interrupted. “We [expletive] cooked up all kinds of [expletive] for pulling the wool over the public’s eyes together, not to mention bamboozling Congress! What the [expletive] do you mean, ‘identified?’”
“At the risk of going meta on you,” I responded, “what my consultations with you on this subject consisted of is likewise open to interpretation. The way I see it, we examined a spectrum of public and congressional relations communication options and chose an optimized suite of analytical perspectives that could, when judiciously applied, portray an essentially positive view of NATO actions in general and United States actions in particular. Bottom line, we collaborated on development of a tool set for you to use in your service to the American people. Your problem is that you went too far using it.”
“Went too far?” Palterer objected. “I got heat from the brass for not going far enough!”
“Maybe so,” I allowed, “but if I help a lumberjack design a better chainsaw, and he goes and uses it to clear-cut all the trees in a redwood grove, including the ones the US Forest Service marked for preservation, is that my fault? Are you saying you were completely unaware that many of the so-called ‘facts’ the Pentagon received from our commanders in Afghanistan were, at best, highly suspect examples of wishful thinking, if not overt acts acts of military and geopolitical fabulism?”
“Aw, for [expletive] sake, Tom, get real,” he groused. “I don’t care if the President is a Republican, a Democrat or a [expletive] Martian, when we’re spending fifty billion dollars a year for the United States Army, Navy and Air Force to fight a bunch of medieval tribesmen straight out of the seventh century, he’s going to expect us to tell him we’re winning, not getting our [expletive] [expletive] kicked all over the [expletive] map from Kandhar to Kunduz!”
“Admit it,” I chided, “you knew and you looked the other way. In the civilian world, the lawyers call that willful blindness, and it’s no excuse for anything. You’ve examined all seven of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction Lessons Learned reports, just as I have. Anybody could have seen that there was massive fudging of the figures – and the facts – all the way up and down the chain of command, from the most junior officers right up to the generals and admirals, and it got to be so bad, even some of them became disgusted with it. Take Colonel Bob Crowley, for example – he was a senior counterinsurgency advisor to US commanders of Afghan operations in 2013 and 2014. Those surveys we designed – I warned you about biased implementations, but you got carried away, asking loaded questions to the point where the major causality in every situation was objectivity. And what did Colonel Crowley say about those surveys?”
Palterer cast his eyes down and bowed his head. I could see his despondent expression in the mirror-polished surface of the conference table. “He said we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”
“Exactly,” I confirmed. “And do you know why the parson’s dog lies in the church driveway during the Sunday sermon licking himself?”
“No,” Palterer sighed, raising his head to stare at the ceiling. “Why?”
“Because he can,” I said. “And that’s precisely why the United States military became a self-licking ice cream cone – because it could. You said the President, no matter who he is, doesn’t want to hear any bad news about Afghanistan. Well, once you start believing that, and acting on that belief, it’s a mighty short step to concluding that neither does the Joint Chiefs of Staff, neither does an Army Corps commander, neither does the Commandant of the Marines, neither does any lieutenant, major or brigadier general, neither does any admiral or rear admiral, neither does any colonel or Navy captain, and neither does anybody with a officer’s commission in the armed forces of the United States. And once that belief becomes fact, then the facts of military conflict become fiction.”
“Hey, look,” he protested, “that’s the [expletive] system! I didn’t make it up, I just have to [expletive] work with it!”
“Yeah, and it’s a safe bet,” I opined, “that Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer didn’t want to hear any bad news about the Lakota Sioux, the Cheyenne or the Arapaho. And his subordinates knew it, that’s how he got them – and himself – massacred by a bunch of neolithic tribesmen out in Montana in 1876. Sound familiar?”
“Damn it all, Collins,” he wailed, “none of those [expletive] lies about the war in Afghanistan were my [expletive] fault!”
“Keep your voice down,” I told him. “Someone outside might hear you. Are you sure this room isn’t bugged, by the way?”
“Absolutely,” he assured me. “They talk way too much [expletive]-up [expletive] in this room to risk anybody recording it.”
“That’s comforting,” I dryly noted. “Listen, Nimrod, there’s considerably more than enough blame to go around about this, and I understand that you did what you did because that’s the way everybody else was doing what they did. You may be a lot of things, but it’s obvious that you’re no mastermind of mass deception.”
Palterer pondered my statement for a moment. “Uh… thanks, I guess.”
“You’re welcome,” I told him. “So tell me, how long have you been in the US Army?”
“Thirty-two years,” he muttered in a voice filled with potential regret.
“Okay, then,” I continued, “when is the earliest you can retire?”
“Well,” he mused, “I suppose if I put the paperwork in this week, I could be out in April.”
“And you dragged me in here for some valuable advice at no charge, right?” I sought to confirm.
“Yeah,” he conceded, “I did.”
“Here it is then,” I announced. “Do it. Retire from the Army and get a job with a federal government defense contractor. With your resume and contacts, the Beltway bandits will be lined up to offer you cushy positions in business development at multiple times your current DoD salary.”
“But what about the Afghanistan Papers scandal?” he implored.
“If someone is trying to use you as a scapegoat,” I advised, “whoever it is will delighted.”
“They will?” Palterer wondered, bewildered.
“Sure they will,” I confirmed. “Because if you retire and go to work in the private sector, they will be able to say, ‘That person may have been responsible, but they aren’t here anymore.‘ Under circumstances like these, a remark like that ends about ninety-nine percent of the inquiries pertaining to assignment of responsibility for mistakes, bad judgement, toadying, sycophancy and incompetence.”
“And you’ll give me some… leads? Some… introductions?” he politely probed.
“It would be a pleasure,” I vouched. “There’s nothing I like better than doing a favor for an esteemed colleague.”
“It’s a deal, then,” Colonel Palterer declared. “You get me a job with a federal defense contractor and I’ll keep my big mouth shut about where I got all my brilliant ideas about how to lie with statistics and surveys.”
“On the contrary,” I shot back as we made for the door. “Tell anybody you like. It will substantially increase demand for my services.”