What Is the Real Story of Buttigieg’s Service and Time in Afghanistan?
Monday, March 2, 2020
PETE BUTTIGIEG: America deserves a Commander in Chief who knows what that sacrifice means, and who will honor the sacred promise we make to our veterans.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner.
Yes, Pete Buttigieg. He really weaponizes his time in the military and his six month tour in Afghanistan–pun intended. What did he really do over there? How did he become an intel officer? Why was this officer a chauffeur? What is so potentially dangerous about a Buttigieg presidency in this context? What was this outfit, the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, or AFTC as it was known, that he was assigned to? What did they do? What was their role in this war and why does it matter, and what questions should Buttigieg and the others who are running for president have to answer about these wars, and the wars we don’t want to see come?
We’re joined by a man who knows a bit about all this: Matthew Hoh, who wrote Heaven Protect Us From Men Who Live the Illusion of Danger: Pete Buttigieg and the US Military, that he wrote for CounterPunch. And welcome Matt, good to have you with us, as always.
MATTHEW HOH: Thanks, Marc.
MARC STEINER: And Matthew Hoh is an activist and a writer. He’s a member of advisory boards of Expose Facts, Veterans for Peace, and World Beyond War. In 2009 he resigned his position with the State Department in Afghanistan to protest the escalation of the war under Obama. And previously, he had been in Iraq with the State Department, and served combat tours of the US Marines as an officer in Afghanistan and is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy.
So Matt, it is good to have you back, and I really love this article you did for CounterPunch, it’s something that I think needs to be talked about in this way. Let’s talk a bit about what we know and why it’s so important to know about Buttigieg’s service in the US Navy, how he became an officer through a direct commission, and what is that, because it seems to serve a purpose but it’s really unclear how he got in, for privilege. So talk a bit about what all that means.
MATTHEW HOH: Well, thanks for having me on again, Marc. And it is important, because Buttigieg is doing well in the polls nationally. He won in Iowa, came in second in New Hampshire, and we have Super Tuesday coming up, and he’s doing well. And he is campaigning, a large part of his campaign, is based upon his military service. In his speeches, at his campaign rallies, you will see posters of him in uniform. On his TV advertisements, there is video or photos of him in uniform carrying a rifle. And in the interviews, speeches he does when he’s behind the podium at the debates, he says things that–to paraphrase him–are along the lines of, “I know about war and peace, and I know about these issues,” regarding, say, Iraq and Iran or Afghanistan and Libya or whatever, “Because I was in the Navy, because I was in Afghanistan, because I went to war.”
He says things like, “I know the meaning of sacrifice. I know what it means to go to war. I know what it means to live in a dangerous combat zone.” So it’s important because this is what he is using to set himself apart from the other candidates. This is something that he is using to basically state why he has the experience to be president, because his other experiences are pretty limited, particularly when compared to the other front-running candidates, all of who have had years, I mean, decades of elected service and have filled other roles. It’s also very important… And this is I think why I started to write the piece, because in the United States, the military is a, as I said in the piece, a para-clerical organization. I wouldn’t want to say quasi-religious; it is a religious organization.
And the idea that you question the military, you question somebody’s record in the military, what they actually did, and in this case where someone is using it too, Buttigieg is using it to define why he would be a better president, that you are committing a heresy, that you are blaspheming. You see this, and I’ve seen this in the last few days with the responses I’ve gotten to my essay. It basically breaks down along the lines of, “How dare you question a veteran?” This is a very serious problem we have in the United States. This is a reason why we continue to be not just sustaining and continuing these wars, but on the verge, seemingly weekly, of getting involved in new ones. The ability to question the military and the militarism in this country, again, it borders on the heretical.
MARC STEINER: One of the things you write about here is that he got his commission as a captain through something called a direct commission. And that, no matter, you talked about being able to look through his records, there was no record. Let me just read what you wrote here. You said, “There is no record, and here I’ll offer the possibility that his record in incomplete, of his attendance at any form of military schools or his participation whether as a mobilized active duty officer or a drilling reservist. His record contains only one DD-214,” which is a record of his active service. And those were important. So let’s talk about that. Why is it important to know this about him? I mean, let me just say it in one context here. A lot of guys in, say, Vietnam, didn’t see combat. They were pushing papers. But everybody went over. So why is this important?
MATTHEW HOH: Again, because this is what he is campaigning on. When, say, the question of General Soleimani’s assassination by President Trump or the question of the United States pulling its forces, supposedly pulling its forces out of Syria, we know that didn’t really occur, they were just redirected to the oil fields in Eastern Syria. But you know, when he receives questions like those, Buttigieg will say, and again, to paraphrase him, he will say “My experience has informed my decision making on this.” And when you look at his record, he really doesn’t have much military experience. He received a direct commission, which, a direct commission means that you are literally appointed as an officer of the US military, that pen is put to paper, and voila, you are a military officer. And in this case, he was made an ensign that way.
Most likely, the campaign… And I will say this, too. As I went through his autobiography, as I went through a number of interviews, a bunch of different articles on this that have been written over the last year, his campaign repeatedly has denied requests for more information about his military career. So when you look at his military records, which are available, I believe it was The Hill, the newspaper The Hill first released, at least notified people that his military records were available, you will see a large part of them are redacted, but that’s personal information. And again, a large part of it is redacted, but again, that’s personal information. The information that is available is important because it shows how often he actually wore the uniform.
It shows, as you stated, Marc, in my essay, that he never attended any schools, he never attended any form of training. He never received what’s called an MOS, a military occupational specialty, or in the Navy they call it a designator, but just to keep it simple here, let’s use you use the common term, MOS, right. He never received that qualification as an intelligence officer. And here’s this other thing about the direct commission, is that it requires no selection process. It requires no training. There’s no hardship. So whereas the vast, vast, vast majority of the men and women who are officers in the US military go through the service academies, go through ROTC or go through officer candidate school and there’s selection involved, there’s training, it’s hard, it’s difficult. Pete Buttigieg did none of that. And he was a young man at the time, he was 28 or so roughly. So he certainly could have done this if he wanted to.
This direct commissioning program, there’s a practical for its existence in that in times of crisis or emergency, the United States military can just bring in specialists, doctors, lawyers, people that have specific skills that the military requires at the time. But there’s also a political aspect of this, and as I note in the essay, Hunter Biden is probably the most famous, or infamous… You know, Hunter Biden received a direct commission into the Navy, and then was discharged for a positive drug test within about a month of his commissioning.
But in my time in the Marine Corps, the Marine Corps I don’t believe does direct commissioning, but I have met a bunch of Naval officers who were direct commission. Some of them were public relations people that were brought in because they had that skill, they had that talent, and others were political. They had benefactors, in the Bush administration or in the Obama administration, who got them these appointments because somebody was high up in the campaign, someone donated a lot of money. And that’s what seems to have been Buttigieg’s route, was during the 2008 campaign, he met somebody, when he campaigned for Obama, he worked for Obama, he met somebody who was able to secure him in this position. And so with a kind of a magic wand, pen on paper, he becomes a Navy officer. Never does any training, there’s no records of his time with the reserve unit.
There is anecdotal evidence, there are people who are part of the reserve unit who speak highly of him, and so it does seem like he did at least on occasion. How often we don’t know, because the campaign won’t say this. How often he actually went to the unit we don’t know, but it seems like he did. The reports are positive, and you could imagine that, he’s a very smart man. He seems like he’s very personal and very positive. He probably would be a very good junior officer, but he just didn’t do the work, and you have to also now get into speculation because the campaign won’t release more information. Did he even have the security clearances necessary to do the intelligence work that he claims he did, or that he says he was, yeah…
MARC STEINER: Well let’s just get to that. There’s a couple of things you said here I really want to kind of tackle. So one of them is that you wrote about people who live like Buttigieg, an illusion of danger, that he would become a dangerous president. What does that mean to live with an illusion of danger, making you a dangerous president? You wrote that a couple of times in different ways.
MATTHEW HOH: Yeah. Well, I think it’s something our country goes through daily. Whether it’s in the practical, whether it’s the fact that one person had, of however many, literally at this point billions of air travelers in the last 20 years, one person tried to light a shoe on fire and blow up an airplane, and we still ritually take our shoes off when we go into the airport, right? So as a nation, whether it’s those color-coded terror alerts, whether it’s the fact that we are okay with the NSA listening and recording all our conversations, all our text messages, all our email, all these types of things, when there is no danger, or the danger is so minimal that it is statistically insignificant. And we go along with it because there is something in our society that worships this danger.
You could see this also too in other ways, and I point this out in the essay. We’re a nation that has more guns than people. Why is that? Because people have these fantasies of having to protect their home from armed intruders, or these fantasies that they need these assault rifles because they’re going to have to fight the government at some point. We live as a people, as a society, with these dangers.
And when you get it down to the individual level, when in a case of Buttigieg, where he did go to Afghanistan, saw no combat from everything we can see, did not work on intelligence matters, was attached to an intelligence unit, but seemed to have, according to his own words, spent most of the time driving other officers around, driving them to meetings, not going into the meetings, waiting with the vehicle outside. But then, coming back and saying things like he does to CNN and to other places, and this is what he said, he said, “I didn’t kill bin Laden, but what I was doing was dangerous.”
Well, I mean, when you have that kind of chutzpah to say those kinds of things, to run your presidency on a very shallow military record, you have to wonder, what is he going to do in office when he is confronted by the generals and the admirals, and the generals and the admirals always lie. I include a Dwight Eisenhower reference to that, Eisenhower speaking about that as well. It’s something his granddaughter relates, that Eisenhower said, looking at his chair in the Oval Office, and I’m sure I’ve said this on The Real News before because it’s one of my favorite quotes, but I think it really tells us so much about the US military and the American government, is that he said, “I’m scared for this country when a man sits in this chair who doesn’t know the military the way I do.”
And he doesn’t mean that you need to be an expert strategist, you need to be a tactician, you need to know operations, you need to understand logistics. It means that you need to understand that the generals and the admirals always lie, and if you look at Buttigieg, I don’t think he has that understanding. His photos, and there are lots of photos online of him with various generals, various colonels, and he is like a kid at a football game. He is excited. He is just wide-eyed and grinning, not even grinning, a huge smile.
You get this, his work did not put him in a way to, one, truly understand war, to truly understand the significance or the reality of combat, the complications of it, the fog of it, all these types of things. But also, two, I don’t think he was ever in a position to really get that the generals and the admirals lie all the time, and certainly nothing about how he presents himself would lead you to believe that when they come into the Oval Office, if he is president, that he is going to stand up to them. Rather I think, because he has this image he wants to protect of being a part of the military, that he would continue to use the military as a political tool, to include going along with whatever the generals and the admirals want.
MARC STEINER: So let me conclude with this in the time we have left. One of the things you write extensively about in the article I think is important, he was assigned to this group called the Afghan Threat Finance Cell. And you talk about them in the context of the Afghan war, and the drugs in Afghanistan and what their role was with that, and how this all kind of really played a part that the media doesn’t want to get into because it’s so complex about that and about how the Taliban was really funded, in large part, by our allies in the Middle East, by the Gulf states and war, and how this feeds into one another. He won’t address it, none of the candidates will address it. The media will not address this because it’s too messy. I can remember this stuff from back in the Vietnam War, the same things, with importing heroin and opium coming out of Vietnam and Laos, and the same thing was going on, but this in some ways is a much larger scale.
MATTHEW HOH: Yeah, this goes back to the 19th century. This goes back to the China trade. I recommend the books of James Bradley, Alfred McCoy. There was a documentarian called Al Profit, a writer named Julien Mercille. There have been books and books written about how not just–complicit is probably too weak of a word–that the US military, US intelligence agencies, US government, have been arm and arm with drug lords and organized crime, going back nearly 200 years now, at least 180 years now. And it’s no different in Afghanistan. And so, there’s this Afghan Threat Finance Cell, which dates back to in the years after 9/11, Treasury Department had this idea that, “Look, we’re going to try and stop the money traveling between the terror groups and their financiers.”
And of course, it really has never come to anything, because most of the financing for these terror groups, these Sunni terror groups, comes out of the Gulf monarchies, comes from our allies. The Saudis, the Bahrainis, the Qataris, the Emiratis, The Kuwaitis. And so, it really has been… Again, this kind of goes back to the topic, the title of the essay, with regards to an illusion of danger. It’s really been this illusion about fighting both terrorism as well as, too, its ties into the war on drugs. And this is an issue that… Look, I mean, the opium crisis at its peak was killing 200 Americans a day just a couple of years ago. There has been no investigations from the US government, from our Congress, as to that linkage between the Afghan War, where in the last 20 years we’ve seen poppy cultivation go from zero to 80 to 90% of the world’s heroin and illicit opium production, and this opium crisis in the United States, or this opiate crisis in the United States.
So when you start to pull these things apart and you see that people like Pete Buttigieg are at least assigned to these units, and come away with the idea that everything that we are doing there is right and just, and that the workings and the apparatus of the United States government are correct and authoritative and are necessary, you really get into this idea that this will be a very dangerous president. I mean, this was a man who was attached to this unit that’s purpose was to disrupt the drug trafficking in Afghanistan. It was run by the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the biggest drug lords in Afghanistan have been in the Afghan government, have been in the Afghan military. I mean, until he was assassinated, the biggest drug lord in Afghanistan was President Karzai’s brother in Kandahar, Ahmed Wali Karzai.
So you have these nexuses, you have these things that, as you said Marc, are really messy, really sloppy, and they don’t get brought up, and they don’t get questioned. Now this gets back to what we originally talked about, about how with the veneration, with the deification of veterans, with the unquestioning of the US military, these things continue to propel themselves. And they’re just not effecting people over overseas where tens of millions continue to suffer from these wars, but they have a very real effect here on the United States. Again, there is literally no investigation by the US Government, no investigation by major American media on, well, okay.
I mean, again, is it just a coincidence that poppy production has soared in Afghanistan at the same time that US opiate crisis has begun? You get shouted down as you’re a complete conspiracy theorist, but I think any rational person, would say particularly knowing, as we brought up, the history of the U S government’s relationship with drug lords all throughout Asia, through the Mediterranean, after World War II et cetera, that this is not conspiracy. This is actually, there is real history to this, and certainly we could talk for hours about all the different things I understood when I was over there about the drug trade, how the Afghan Air Force that we were giving these planes and helicopters to, use those planes and helicopters to move drugs out of the country. How there is very real evidence that some of the American military members in Afghanistan who were killed by Afghan soldiers were killed because of issues involving drug trafficking.
I mean, there’s all kinds of things that have just been shut away. And when you step back and look at Buttigieg running for president, it makes sense that you have a man who has this illusory military record, this is the basis of his running for office, where most of his experience seems to come from. That and being the mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana. You have to say, hey, look, we have a real problem in this country and it’s going to propel things to be worse if we don’t put some type of brake on it.
MARC STEINER: Well Matt Hoh, it’s always great to talk to you. I appreciate your time; the work that you do bringing this to the fore. Thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News.
MATTHEW HOH: Thank you, Marc.
MARC STEINER: Oh, thank you. And if any of you were thinking here about Pete Buttigieg, please listen to this broadcast. Read the transcript, think about what we’re talking about here and what this is really all about. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.