THE MIRROR TEST: AMERICA AT WAR IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN by J. Kael Weston

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The mood that is presented in J. Kael Weston’s powerful new book, THE MIRROR TEST: AMERICA AT WAR IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN is one of horror, empathy, skepticism, anger, and little hope that the American government has learned its lessons in dealing with cultures that are in many ways the antithesis of our own.  Weston immediately explains how he arrived at the title, THE MIRROR TEST by describing the reaction of an American Marine who is unwrapping his bandages following a horrific burn injury, and is looking at himself in a mirror for the first time.  For Weston, the American people should look at themselves in the mirror as they have supported in one way or another fifteen years of war since 9/11.  Weston was a State Department official who served over seven years in some of the most dangerous spots for a “diplomat” in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The majority of his time was spent in Fallujah in Anbar province in Iraq, the remainder in Khost and Helmand provinces in Afghanistan.  Because of the calamitous injuries suffered by US Marines the author has witnessed, he finally comes to the realization that he has seen too much.  Our country has demanded so much from so few, and it seems that we as a people have forgotten about the sacrifices these men and women have made.  In the latter part of the narrative Weston describes his journey throughout the United States as he tries to visit the families, memorials, and grave sites of the thirty one soldiers who perished in a helicopter crash on January 26, 2005 in the Anbar Desert, an operation that the author ordered.

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(The author)

Weston, who worked at the United Nations as part of the American delegation volunteered to serve in Iraq, even though he opposed the war.  He became a member of the Coalition Provisional Authority whose job was to oversee the occupation of Iraq.  From the beginning Weston believed the United States was in over its head, and thirteen years later that belief has not changed.  He describes the invasion of Iraq as “mission impossible” due to our ignorance and unrealistic expectations.  Weston believed it was important to go beyond the “Green Zone” and learn the truth about Iraq and its people.  Working with Iraqi truckers who had their unique version of “teamsters;” visiting schools, Madrassas, Iraqi religious leaders, and the homes of Iraqi citizens where he gained insights and knowledge that made him one of the most respected and knowledgeable Americans in the country.  Weston observed an “imperialistic disconnect” between the local populations and Americans that has not changed since the war’s outset.

Weston integrates the history of the war that has been repeated elsewhere by numerous journalists and historians, but what separates his account is how he intersperses his personal experiences, relationships, and evaluation of events as the narrative progresses.  He has done a great deal of research in formulating his opinions and provides numerous vignettes throughout the book.  One of the most interesting was the discussion of the Jewish Academy that existed in Fallujah, the Sunni stronghold, where the Talmud was supposedly written during the Babylonian era. As the book evolves the reader acquires the “feel of war” that existed in Anbar and all the areas that Weston was posted.  For Weston, American policymakers should have followed the advice of the Chinese general, military strategist, and philosopher, Sun Tzu who wrote in ART OF WAR; “In the art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy’s country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy is not good.”  It has been proven that Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and the rest of Bush’s cadre of neocons never took into account the opinions of others who had greater experience in war and the Middle East region in general.

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Weston describes the malfeasance that highlights US policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, a malfeasance that US Marines had to work around and for many pay with their lives.  Weston touches on things that most writers do not, i.e., his interactions and the role of Mortuary Affairs crews; visits to the “potato factory” or mortuary building; coping methods of people who worked there; accompanying Marines on body recovery missions and dealing with booby-trapped bodies; and dealing with the burial process that would assuage Iraqi religious beliefs.  Weston includes the names and hometowns of each Marine that have been killed in Iraq that he was aware of.  What is abundantly clear in presenting these lists is that the majority of American casualties were in there early twenties and where from small town across America, the towns that bore the unequal burden of these wars.  Weston is extremely perceptive in his views and they explain why we will never be successful in Iraq and Afghanistan.  First, by keeping ourselves separate from the Iraqi people, we make more enemies.  Second, the perception we give off is that our lives are deemed more valuable than theirs.  Our way of dealing with a crisis, be it collateral damage, errors, or just plain stupidity on the part of military planners is to pay the aggrieved families money – we even had a scale of what a life was worth – at times $2,000 per life or $6,000 referred to as “martyr payments.”

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(The battle for Fallujah, circa 2007)

Weston’s approach in Iraq and Afghanistan was very hands on and taking risks that he felt would enhance America’s relationship with local people.  Whether dealing with poor villagers, Imans or Mullahs, Islamic students, Taliban leaders, regional officials, warlords, and any group or person deemed important, Weston’s approach was “out of the box” and designed to further trust and reduce tensions surrounding the US presence.  He worked hard to alter the views of the locals that the United States was out to take over the Muslim world.  For example he recommended increased funding for Madrassas students which he hoped would stem the flow of students into northwest Pakistan were they would be further radicalized.    In many cases these were dangerous missions that military officials opposed.  What drove Weston to distraction was the disconnect between regular Marines and US Special Forces who could conduct operations that detracted from what the Marines were trying to achieve, with no accountability.  Two good examples were the kidnapping of Sara al-Jumaili that led to the murder of one of Weston’s allies, Sheik Hamza, with no explanation or accountability on the part of the Special Forces; and the torturing to death of Dilqwar of Yakubi in Bagram prison.  Unlike visiting politicians who dropped in for a photo op, i.e., former Senators Jon Kyle, Arizona and Sam Brownback, Kansas, or Senator Mitch McConnell, Kentucky, who the author singles out, Weston believed in laying the groundwork of trust to establish working relationships that would be so important for any success, but the actions of others created to many road blocks..  Weston presents a number of individuals who cooperated with his work, many of whom would be killed by al-Qaeda extremists in Fallujah, and the Taliban in Helmand province.

When Weston leaves Fallujah after three years and moves on to Khost and Helmand in Afghanistan he is suffering from a crisis of confidence.  When people approach him and ask “did you kill anyone?”  He knows he did not do so physically, but he is fully cognizant that a number of his policy decisions led to the deaths of many Iraqis and Americans.  Weston learned that “the wrong words could be more dangerous to human life than rounds fired from rifles.”  Perhaps the war would have gone differently had Washington policymakers asked the same question, did you kill anyone?”  Weston worked to get ex-Taliban leaders to support the Kabul government, and reintegrate former Taliban fighters back into Afghan society.  This was almost impossible with the attitude and corruption that existed in Kabul.  From Weston’s perspective, President Obama’s “surge” policy in 2010 was another example of wasting America’s resources as it was bound to fail.  For Weston the name of Thomas Ricks’ book FIASCO is the best way to sum up what occurred and is still reoccurring in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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(Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan)

Weston tells many heart rendering stories.  His chapter dealing with “dignified transfers” describing how American bodies were gathered, prepared, and shipped back to the United States is eye opening.   His recounting of stories concerning the reuniting of wounded veterans with their service dogs is touching.  Presenting amputee veterans skiing in the Sierras provides hope.  Operation Mend, a private program to assist disfigured Marines needs further support.   His meetings with families as he travels across the United States is a form of personal therapy once he returns from the region for good.  Weston writes with a degree of sincerity that is missing in many other accounts of the war.  His approach allows the reader to get to know his subjects, at times intimately, as he shares their life stories in a warm and positive manner, particularly during his travels visiting the families of those who have fallen overseas, and those families whose offspring have had difficulty readapting to civilian life after returning home.

Despite the gravity of Weston’s topic, he maintains a sense of humorous sarcasm throughout the book.  My favorite is his summary of his visit to the George W. Bush Presidential Library where his narration of the exhibits that discuss the war in Iraq are seen through the lens of his five and half years in Baghdad and Fallujah (the other year and a half were spent in Khost and Helmand).   These are just a few of the many topics that Weston explores that should make this book required reading for anyone who has studied US foreign policy during the last fifteen years and who will make policy in the future.

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