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April 17, 2008

Steven Vincent, RIP


I am sipping coffee in my office. My keyboard stares snarkily back at me as I sleepily try to decide what to stun my dwindling readership senseless with today. Behind me, something unfamiliar beckons... a brand spanking new crib for The Burrito, just recently fetched and hastily assembled from the local Babies SureRExpensive. It is distracting the blog princess from her important ruminations on the global war on terriers.

It needs something. Perhaps crib bumpers? Green ones... with Winnie the Poo and Tigger, too:

The most wunnerful thing about Tigger
Is that Tigger's a wunnerful thing
His tail is made out of rubber
His butt is made out of springs

But I digress...

Is that Carrie snickering in the background? "Concentrate, womyn. Dammit!" I thought we were friends.

The New York Times is up to its usual shenanigans, winning those important hearts and minds... (for the other side):

If we told you that the New York Times had a front-page, above-the-fold story about a battle in Iraq, with a headline running two-thirds of the way across the page, you would naturally assume it was about a victory for our side, right?

Only if you've been asleep for the past 60 years.

The headline actually reads, "Iraqi Unit Flees Post, Despite America's Plea." It turns out barely four dozen Iraqi soldiers are involved:

A company of Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions on Tuesday night in Sadr City, defying American soldiers who implored them to hold the line against Shiite militias.

The retreat left a crucial stretch of road on the front lines undefended for hours and led to a tense series of exchanges between American soldiers and about 50 Iraqi troops who were fleeing. . . .

This episode was a blow to the American effort to push the Iraqis into the lead in the struggle to wrest control of parts of Sadr City from the Mahdi Army militia and what Americans and Iraqis say are Iranian-backed groups.

How severe a blow it was is never made clear. In fact, the story seems to be incomplete.

But then so much seems to be ... shall we say... incomplete about the reporting from Basra these days. For weeks on end, our own media have been trumpeting to the skies how Basra has been a resounding setback for both the Maliki government and the US. One must go to the foreign press to get a different view:

Three weeks after Iraqi troops swarmed into the southern city of Basra to take on armed militiamen who had overrun the streets, many residents say they feel safer and that their lives have improved.

The fierce fighting which marked the first week of Operation Sawlat al-Fursan (Charge of the Knights) has given way to slower, more focused house-by-house searches by Iraqi troops, which led on Monday to the freeing of an abducted British journalist.

Residents say the streets have been cleared of gunmen, markets have reopened, basic services have been resumed and a measure of normality has returned to the oil-rich city.

The port of Umm Qasr is in the hands of the Iraqi forces who wrested control of the facility from Shiite militiamen, and according to the British military it is operational once again.

But then, as Kat reminds us, Basra was a swamp that needed draining and in doing so, brings back a ghost who has long haunted me:

Two and a half years ago, Steven Vincent, author of "In the Red Zone" was killed in Basra for reporting the truth that is still relevant today: Basra is the Sopranos on Steroids.

In his last report in the New York Times, July 31, 2005, Vincent wrote:

As has been widely reported of late, Basran politics (and everyday life) is increasingly coming under the control of Shiite religious groups, from the relatively mainstream Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to the bellicose followers of the rebel cleric Moktada al-Sadr. Recruited from the same population of undereducated, underemployed men who swell these organizations' ranks, many of Basra's rank-and-file police officers maintain dual loyalties to mosque and state.

In May, the city's police chief told a British newspaper that half of his 7,000-man force was affiliated with religious parties. This may have been an optimistic estimate: one young Iraqi officer told me that "75 percent of the policemen I know are with Moktada al-Sadr - he is a great man." And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

How many people remember that Steven was the first American journalist to be attacked and killed during the war? Before his death, several journalists (most notably Michael Kelly of the Washington Post) had died in vehicle accidents or from illnesses.

Vincent was the first to suffer a violent death at the hands of the enemy. This was, perhaps, fitting for a man whose outlook on life would not have been unfamiliar to anyone in the armed forces:

Steven C. Vincent, a New York City journalist who was kidnapped and killed in Iraq on Tuesday, was described by friends and colleagues yesterday as an intrepid newsman roused by the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and committed to shoe-leather reporting, whatever the consequences.

Mr. Vincent resolved to go to Iraq, where he lived a hardscrabble life in a $15-a-day hotel and wrote articles about what he regarded as Islamic fascism. He compared his two trips to Iraq to the tours taken by journalists covering the rise of fascism in Europe during the Spanish Civil War.

Mr. Vincent wrote an account of his experience in Iraq after the American invasion titled "In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq" (Spence Publishing, 2004) and was at work on a contemporary history of the southern port city of Basra. He had planned to leave Iraq soon.

Mr. Vincent and his Iraqi interpreter were kidnapped on Tuesday evening in Basra, Iraqi and American authorities said yesterday. His body was found north of the city center hours later, and a hospital official said he had been shot three times in the chest. The interpreter, who was also shot, was hospitalized in serious condition.

On Sunday, Mr. Vincent wrote in an Op-Ed column for The New York Times that British military forces in the Basra region had turned a blind eye to large numbers of insurgents infiltrating the Basra police force. That force, he asserted, was becoming a roaming death squad.

Bruce Wolmer, editor in chief of Art + Auction magazine, was Mr. Vincent's longtime editor and described himself as a close friend. "Where there was a very difficult story where no one wanted to talk," Mr. Wolmer said, "where it involved a lot of investigative digging, someone who wasn't afraid to burn bridges, Steven was our guy."

But Mr. Vincent's interest in the art world abated after Sept. 11. In a 2004 interview with FrontPage magazine, a journal of conservative commentary, he said, "I figured our enemy was Islamic terrorism - and I wanted to do my part in the conflict. I'm too old to enlist in the armed services, so I decided to put my writing talents to use."

Steven Mumford, an artist friend with whom Mr. Vincent worked in Baghdad, said they stayed together in 2003 at the Orient Hotel, where rooms went for $15 a day.

Working on a shoestring budget, Mr. Mumford said, Mr. Vincent did not have the money for a bulletproof vest or a Kevlar helmet, let alone the bodyguards large news organizations routinely provide for their reporters. Mr. Vincent and his interpreters took taxis wherever they went, instead of armored vehicles.

In 2004, Mr. Mumford said in a telephone interview from his Manhattan apartment, Mr. Vincent came close to being attacked by a crowd in the troubled city of Najaf after a series of car bombings, apparently because he was a Westerner.

"His first instinct was to get the story and worry about his safety later," Mr. Mumford said.

I will never forget the day I learned of his death, nor the words that floated into my head. I think of them still, whenever I think of his work:

If you look far enough into his eyes
They'll rock you just like thunder

We never hear much about Steven Vincent from the mainstream media when they speak of how incredibly dangerous it is over there, yet he rode around in taxis without guards, body armor, or a big stipend from the home office. Why is that?

I think he put them to shame. I also think it was because he was a conservative.

I believe it was Marshall McLuhan who once said the medium is the message. The sad truth with news reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan is that morale - your morale - has become the message. Somehow, they have managed to set us, those who are for and those who are against this war, at each other's throats; and that is bad for America.

Another truth is that that the war is far more complex than their day to day reporting can possibly encompass. As I mentioned yesterday, honest people can disagree as to whether what we are doing half a world away is worth the candle. That is, ultimately, a question of valuation; not one of fact. The sad thing is that those who ought to be giving us a rounded picture of the scene are not doing so. We are getting a profoundly skewed picture not only of the war, but of our own basic nature as Americans.

There is so much good in the world: so much decency right here in America that we are exporting to lands far distant in space and time:

People cannot always do great things, but sometimes they can do small things with great kindness -- even in a war zone.

A little Iraqi Bedouin girl with a badly burned arm gave Capt. Jon Brillhart and members of his Virginia Army National Guard unit the chance to be kind.

The story began, physician assistant Brillhart said, late one morning in early October with a radio call from a combat medic on a route-security mission "somewhere" in Iraq.

The message relayed to his desk said a 4-year-old girl had fallen into her family's campfire, severely burning her right arm from hand to elbow.

Brillhart is the medical officer for the state Guard's 2nd Squadron, 183rd Cavalry, operating in southern Iraq and northern Kuwait.

He was interviewed by telephone and e-mail from the unit's base at Camp Beuhring in Kuwait, a little way from the Iraqi border.

Without immediate treatment, the child's arm would become infected quickly and would have to be amputated. "This girl needed definitive advanced care quickly," he said.

This wasn't the first time local Iraqis needed medical care from Brillhart's soldiers, but because of the dangers from ambush, unexploded munitions and roadside bomb attacks, U.S. commanders don't send their troops "outside the wire" lightly.

Lt. Col. Walter Mercer, a Hanover County school teacher, commands the squadron's 500 soldiers.

After weighing the possible threats against Brillhart's recommendation, the cavalry squadron launched an emergency medical team into the night: 12 soldiers, four heavily armed and armored Humvees, and Brillhart.

At the nomadic Bedouins' camp, he said, the Guardsmen formed the gun trucks into a defensive perimeter -- "weapons charged" -- in the desert.

"I can remember the peaceful stillness in the air as we walked towards the family's three-sided tent," said Brillhart, who works in an orthopedic surgery center in Portsmouth. "There were thousands of stars out and hundreds of sheep roaming freely at our feet."

Still, the 44-year-old medical officer from Portsmouth acknowledged being nervous: "We were not only making ourselves a target but also my patient as well."

Then "an elderly female dressed in all black emerged from the darkness holding a small girl . . . with [her] right arm outstretched," he said.

Brillhart's examination revealed that the girl, whose name was Fatma, had suffered extensive second-degree burns -- from the tips of her fingers to her right elbow, he said.

Bits of wood and sand stuck to the burned and blackened tissue.

He removed the dead skin, a tedious and extremely painful process -- "I did see tears often" -- and dressed the wound.

"Fatma never flinched," Brillhart said. "She is an extremely brave little girl."

"I remember the drive back from the camp, wondering if the girl would be OK throughout the night," he said. "Truthfully, I never imagined I would be doing this in the desert of Iraq, with limited supplies, and a not-so-ideal sterile setting."

The next day, he and Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Peacock, a medic from Suffolk, returned to examine the burns. "Fatma's care continued almost daily for several weeks as we meticulously debrided and cleaned her wounds," Brillhart said.

By the Americans' third visit, she would greet Brillhart by name.

"She continued to remain strong throughout the encounters," he said, "and we began to develop a special bond."

The cavalrymen took Fatma's family under their wing, with the Virginians' relatives back home donating boxes of clothing for the Bedouins.

Though communication, even with an Arabic translator, was difficult, Brillhart said, "the family was extremely grateful."

Then the nomadic sheep herders -- in the midst of Fatma's care -- folded their tents and vanished into the vast desolate desert.

"We were devastated," Brillhart said, "and I personally feared that we had not done enough to save the arm and hand from certain infection."

Early last month, a patrol from the 183rd happened upon Fatma and her grandmother, walking along the road the soldiers were covering.

The girl had full use of her arm and hand. The badly injured limb had healed completely.

The squadron's citizen-soldiers are due to return to Virginia next month.

Some day, in an arid land beneath a still slumbering desert sun, a radiant dark eyed bride may one day rise to meet her bridegroom.

And perhaps as she makes her preparations, she will remember to call Captain Brillhart of Virginia blessed in the name of Allah. For every horror story that is bruited about by the NY Times, there are hundreds of Steven Vincents and Captain Brillharts in tiny papers we never learn of because the megaphone is too small. But they still exist, and they have their effect all the same.

We just need to learn not to let the Times get us down, or they win.

CWCID: spd rdr for the 183rd Cav. story.

Posted by Cassandra at April 17, 2008 08:04 AM

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Another great one Cass. You are killing my reputation over here, everyone thinks I have bad alergies.

Posted by: sluggo at April 17, 2008 10:00 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 04/17/2008 A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.

Posted by: David M at April 17, 2008 11:28 AM

Despite our failings, Americans are, and always have been, a people given to charitable works, unbounded optimism, and common decency. Too bad that view doesn't sell newspapers.

Posted by: spd rdr at April 17, 2008 11:54 AM

Some day, in an arid land beneath a still slumbering desert sun, a radiant dark eyed bride may one day rise to meet her bridegroom.

And perhaps as she makes her preparations, she will remember to call Captain Brillhart of Virginia blessed in the name of Allah.

I'm sure this happens far more often that we will ever know, today, now. And will continue for a least an entire generation of Iraqis, if not more.

Posted by: Kris, in New England at April 17, 2008 11:57 AM

Too bad that view doesn't sell newspapers.

I wonder what it says about us that it doesn't :p

Probably nothing good!

Posted by: Cassandra at April 17, 2008 12:15 PM

Part of the reason why I want Sadr's head affixed to a stake is because he is a threat to Iraq and thus American national security. Another reason is because of how he went about killing both Americans and Iraqis, terrorizing people in Basra that should have been using their energies to build up their lives after OIF 1, not running from Sadr's goons.

But like most other humans, my empathic capacities are woefully inadequate to process "numbers" of any deaths, Iraqi or Coalition. Human empathy only really responds on a face to face basis. We can only ever visualize probably the total number of people we actually know and remember by face or voice. That means, unfortunately, that numbers on a piece of paper really are just statistics and strangers really are't human to us. Not on the emotional level, certainly, and to the Left, probably not on the intellectual level either. But I digress.

Steven Vincent was someone that you could get to know through his writings, even though I had never seen a picture of him. I saw a picture of his soul, though, in his actions, in where and when and how he died, as well as in the actions and words of those that spoke about him after his death.

Sadr was involved ins his death and thus Sadr needs to pay. That is the age old revenge instinct in humanity, designed to keep us alive and functioning even as hell's bells come for us.

That old tribal and clan refrain of "they kill one of us, we kill a thousand of them" is a tried and true technique in my view, one I feel is very well justified, if you have the power and justification to accomplish it. For all of the great benefits of civilization and its sheep like values, I still hold that some of the old tribal methods are still the best solutions to human woes.

A few weeks ago, I was reading Wolf Howling's analysis of enemy propaganda over Basra and Sadr's "victory" there. My response highlighted Steven Vincent, Cass, because that was a person that truly did put the Basra conflict into context. And it says much of our enemies and their allies in the media, that they refuse to mention Steven Vincent while touting their own courage and valor in reporting "objective news".

An aristocrat executing a few peasants for looking at him cross eyed probably also thinks his decision was pretty "objective", you know.

Post in question

I was only able to quote one of Vincent's articles, although I am assured you could find plenty more that is quite relevant to the situation in Basra today. But this one was my choice.

" By 2005, Basra was already in the hands of the “militias,” and in particular Sadr’s Mahdi Army. This 2005 article from CSM documents how Sadr’s militia in particular was imposing a rule in Basra with ever “increasing similarity to the repressive Iranian theocracy.” This similarity came complete with torture and beheadings for singing, dancing, walking about without Iranian hijab, etc. A note here that these are in the same vein as charges regularly leveled against Sadr and his militia in other areas where they have held sway, such as Karbala. And on a second note, in all the reports that I have read of “militia” violence since July, 2006, the only militia that has ultimately been identified in any of the reports as specifically having committed any of the violence is Sadr’s Mahdi militia.

At any rate, by the time the British finally retreated in disgrace a few months ago, the militias fully occupied the power vacuum in Basra. The Iraqi government did not control Basra, and it descended into a gangland with the militias involved in incredibly lucrative illegal activities arising from control of the port. And, much like you see in southern Lebanon with Hezbollah and Nasrallah, billboards and posters “glorifying Mr. Sadr’s fighters [were] everywhere in the city.” A NYT article in February documented the many problems in Basra as it had further degenerated following the British retreat:"

People on our side can be crappy and unprofessional and our enemies may be crappy and unprofessional as well. That doesn't change the fact that what will always be true is that our enemies work to cripple humanity's ability to grow out of misery and devastation, while our allies, like Steven Vincent, attempt to make things better for the children of the future.


An idea I've always liked was to give out contact information to the people our military has helped in such a way that it fits naturally into the cultural and world view of those we were helping. If our patients are Bedouin Arabs or some such, then we should make it clear that the organization that is helping them is not just a medic and his blood relations, but an entire tribe called Al-Ameriki that is sub-divided into various different family groups like Tribe Civilian and Tribe Military. And the Tribe Military also has smaller sub-divisions like Tribe Marine Corps, Army, AF, Navy.

In the day to day life of most people in war, they're not really concerned about the "higher ups" so to speak. They are far more concerned about their local problems and disasters. Thus an entity that we call "America" is not something most Arabs or Persians, with the exception of the Kurds, really understand. They don't know how we are structured hierarchically, and for the most part, we didn't know how they were structured either. We tried to apply our templates of "nationalism" and government bureaucracy to Iraq and it didn't work so well. Iraqis tried to apply the system of tribalism to us and realized that we just wouldn't accept bribes and favors for our blood relations in return for giving some Arab tribes favors. That just made things very alien for people.

I think we should take advantage of that and educate people in exactly how America is structured, translated in tribalism and blood relations. That way, people can more easily understand that helping another American is simply repaying the aid they were given by another America. And of course, Arabs understand the difference between "extended family" and "close family". So they should easily understand that they will get less cooperation from State Department and American bureaucrats than they would get from the "close family" of the people who actually helped them in Iraq, which would be infantry members, Marine Corps, Captains, Corporals, etc.

It took long years of war to communicate such things without an adequate program of mult-cultural education. Reminds me of the Japanese WWII era's views towards soldiers that surrendered. America thought of POWs as honorable men that surrendered, not because they were cowards, but because they owed a duty to stay alive in order to defend their nation or whatever entity their loyalty was given to. The Japanese, however, saw soldiers surrendering much as we thought of Benedict Arnold's attempt to give West Point to the British. For the Japanese, once you gave an oath to your feudal lord, which in this case was the Emperor and thus Japan as a whole, you were required by duty to fight to the death. Only then could you complete your duty. But if you lost and were alive, you would often be required to commit hara kiri to wash away your dishonor. Once again, death was your way of completing your duty.

Staying alive while your lord or land is still in danger, is about the same in Imperial Japan as treason was to the Founding Fathers. Not things you treated very kindly. The regular treatment for soldiers that surrendered, was for the Japanese to give them an opportunity to commit ritual suicide to wash away some of the dishonor they acquired through surrendering. And if the soldiers refused, they were probably killed anyways, so that their ancestors could get some of their shame alleviated by a warrior's death at least.

Keeping soldiers, that have surrendered, alive, however, was only ever useful to shame the family, feudal lord, or nation those soldiers had been fighting for. That or they were holding them for ransom, which is a popular thing in tribal and clanwarfare cultures.

Which, in an ironic turn of things, meant that when the Marines of Wake Island were slated to be executed on the spot (direct testimony from a Marine who fought there, via History Channel), they were kind of being given a small honor by the Japanese assault force. Wouldn't have looked like that to any American observer at that time. It would have looked like a war crime for POWs to be executed on the spot that they surrendered in.

The point is, every culture has a different way of seeing things, but fundamentally, we are all humans and we thus have the same tendencies and foundations. Loyalty is still loyalty, even if it is expressed in alien and incomprehensible fashions.

Getting the other side to comprehend your way of doing things and how that relates to them, is the epitome of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism. Of course, to the Left, multiculturalism means exactly the opposite. Which is, instead of cosmopolitanism, parochialism. A Leftist versed in multiculturalism, is probably one of most parochial and ignorant individuals on this planet.

People like Steven Vincent that volunteered to go into alien territory in order to give us knowledge about our enemies and potential future allies, have done all of us a favor. Even if some of us prefer to ignore his sacrifice and the work he did. People like Dan Rather and Keith Olberman, however.... let's just say that executing them after they have surrendered would be too good for them.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at April 17, 2008 02:34 PM

Whoops, I quoted the wrong piece in my post. This was the one that was from VIncent's article.

"Few people here go that far in ascribing blame to the U.S. or its allies. Still, there is a feeing of helplessness, bordering for some on a sense of futility, among nearly all Basrans. They know their city has great, if untapped, potential. Yet at the same time, even after the fall of Saddam, the historic Iraqi elections and the billions of dollars poured into their region by American and British governments, in addition to the U.N. and numerous NGOs, they have seen little effect in their daily lives — water is still bad, electricity spotty, gas lines intolerable. “How can this be? We should be rich!” Saad, a former translator for the British army exclaimed to me. “Where is the money going, why is nothing happening? Tell your readers,” he added in a distraught tone, “that we are willing to work to make Basra beautiful again — but we need their help, we need the world’s help.” So it is throughout the city on the banks of the Shatt-al-Arab. Basrans can almost see the arrival a better and more prosperous tomorrow, but for now, that bright future is frustratingly, inexplicably, just beyond their reach."

Posted by: Ymarsakar at April 17, 2008 02:39 PM

To courageous souls with stout and compassionate hearts for the oppressed and the weak. And to those who seek the truth... Salute!

Too bad that view doesn't sell newspapers.
I wonder what it says about us that it doesn't :p
Probably nothing good!

On that note, it seems that the news (slanted,colored editorials more akin to party-line dogma than unvarnished news) and opinions of print publishers intended to shape the reality of the unwashed might just not be panning out so well. Dare I say that some, like the NYT for instance, might be feeling a slight Pinch?

Would it be inappropriate for me to start planning a good ole Irish wake? Complete with some Gaelic drinkin songs, tap a keg or two of Guinness and offer the following toast to em:

"May you have the hindsight to know where you've been,

the foresight to know where you're going,

and the insight to know when you've gone too far."

Posted by: bthun bailbondsman in training at April 17, 2008 05:01 PM

Since newspapers don't know crack about business, why would they be able to sell anything, regardless what the articles in it was about?

Matt of Blackfive ain't putting his MBA skills to their aid, after all.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at April 17, 2008 09:08 PM

"We just need to learn not to let the Times get us down, or they win."

Amen, sister.

Posted by: camojack at April 18, 2008 03:35 AM

Thank you for posting about Steven Vincent again. You're right, one could see into his soul through his writings. Blessings to his wife, brave woman she is.

Posted by: Maggie45 at April 18, 2008 09:30 PM

Vincent also had a lot to say about the corruption operating in Iraq, too. While it was certainly the historical standard for doing things, there, he wanted to be sure people were aware of its presence and, as anyone should know, the fact that it runs counter to the proper operation of the Rule of Law, which, if nothing else, is the one thing we should be giving to them, though it is the hardest of them. Without Rule of Law, and Respect for it, there can be no Freedom nor Liberty.

Posted by: obloodyhell at April 21, 2008 12:26 AM

obloodyhell, that is what Michael Yon emphasizes in his book, over and over, and how much the Iraqi police and military and CLC's are impressed by it. We did NOT do it in the beginning, and that was a big part of the problem.

Posted by: Maggie45 at April 22, 2008 03:24 AM

Jon Brillhart, truly one of a kind. He has touched so many lives.

Posted by: Virginia Girl at March 22, 2009 09:15 PM