Having someone write a book about your experiences is weird, something Zach Nelson learned when he sat down with Annie Jacobsen’s disturbing, dystopian true story, “First Platoon: A Story of Modern War in the Age of Identity Dominance.”
The former Army specialist from Vancouver, Washington, lived many of the stories told in the book, a great American tragedy that chronicles how our democracy is crumbling in real time.
“It is a great book,” Nelson said. “It’s just hard for me to read.”
“First Platoon” tells two parallel stories that will keep those of us concerned about civil liberties up at night. Jacobsen dives into the troubling tale of 1st Lt. Clint Lorance, the disgraced former military leader who ordered the murder of Afghan civilians in one of the ugliest events for the U.S. military in the continuous wars since 9/11. She takes the story far beyond Lorance’s controversial pardon by President Donald Trump, though, detailing a largely unreported secretive program to catalog the personal and physical information of 80% of the Afghan population in a quest for “identity dominance.”
That biometrics program resembles every cautionary speculative fiction tale ever told and is currently being used as a model for the Chinese government’s attempt to control and recondition its Uighur Muslim population. There’s even evidence it has been used to catalog American citizens during Black Lives Matters protests.
“A lot of the biometric stuff I really didn’t know about, to be honest,” Nelson said. “I knew it was a big deal and I understood how it worked. But to get the full understanding of the background and how they can track these people down and stuff like that, it amazed me. But what really just took me back was rereading what happened again, trying to process when my buddy Nick died, you know? It brought back that whole scene and it just brought back a lot of bad times for me.”
Identity dominance as defined by Jacobsen should be eye-opening to most Americans, whose concept of privacy is quaintly outdated in the increasingly tooth-and-claw information age. Turns out it’s not just retailers who are creating virtual profiles of you.
“It’s a spooky idea that the government — or more specifically law enforcement — wants to know more about you than you do,” Jacobsen said. “I mean, what a strange concept. But, of course, if you’re talking about metrics, someone can know more about you in the same way that your doctor might know more about your body than you because they have that expertise.”
A Pulitzer Prize finalist (“The Pentagon’s Brain”) who’s used to uncovering things about the military we should be concerned about, even Jacobsen was astounded by the ramifications of the identity dominance program and how quickly it has become standard operating procedure in our tech-dominated age. She said there are 84 million surveillance cameras in the U.S. — “more per capita than China, by the way.”
And not every camera is there for your protection.
“What I find most troublesome is that biometric capturing is now going on without anyone being aware that it is happening,” Jacobsen said. “And so it’s a ‘canary in the coal mine’ tale in that regard.”
One that Nelson regrettably lived through. The railroad worker, now 28, was a member of the elite C Troop, or Charlie Troop, of the 82nd Airborne, a tough-as-nails infantry unit known for parachuting into or infiltrating enemy territory on some of the U.S. military’s most dangerous missions.
“Charlie Troop — and I’m not saying this to brag by any means, but it is the truth — if you wanted something done, you called us,” Nelson said.
The mission seemed clear when he first put boots on the ground in Afghanistan, and he was ready for it.
“Going through basic [training] and Airborne School and stuff like that, I was pumped to go to war — I’m not going to lie,” Nelson said. “I was ready to go beat some bad dudes up and stuff like that, do what I signed up for.”
Charlie Troop was one of the most active units in Afghanistan, always on the move during weeklong missions that included multiple patrols a day and lots of contact with the locals and their elder leadership. The unit earned presidential citations for its work, which always included processing fingerprints, iris scans, facial images and even DNA collection.
“We were really good at what we did,” Nelson said. “We were really good at capturing these people to put them in for biometrics. We had a great capture rate. And it kind of all makes sense now.”
In this context, the word capture simply means to obtain a person’s biometric information — “but we did capture a lot of bad guys, too,” Nelson said. “It’s all kind of playing the game.”
Lorance entered the picture late in Nelson’s tour in 2012 and changed the tenor of things for Charlie Troop. The inexperienced leader ordered the killing of unarmed Afghan civilians under questionable circumstances. He was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder and court-martialed in 2013 after nine members of his own unit testified against him. A cloud has hung over the unit since, with suicide and other sad outcomes haunting its members.
“We all came back home and we were all screwed up,” Nelson said. “Mainly due to the fact what we did over there was so good, but it was washed out by Clint.”
Cheered on by Fox News and conservative media, Trump controversially pardoned Lorance in November 2019 and treated him like an American hero. Jacobsen details in her book how Lorance’s case was bolstered by biometric data that claimed the men killed were bomb-makers.
The affair raises infinite questions about civil liberties, individual rights and the rule of law. Many of the tenets of the program appear anti-American and undemocratic on the surface.
“That’s the terrible paradox,” Jacobsen said. “It’s unfortunately terribly American when it comes to defense. … And so, now that these systems have come home, it’s America that is being bitten by its own Defense Department, I believe.”
She said there are documented accounts of the federal government using similar tactics during protests on U.S. soil, including the use of planes to capture images and track movement. There were many reports of biometric information-gathering during the protracted protests in Seattle and Portland over the summer and the rhetoric from Washington, D.C., leaned heavily toward enemy of the state. Many also were astounded at the speed at which some were identified and arrested following the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
“This concept of the rule of law has been hijacked, warped, twisted, manipulated,” Jacobsen said. “It’s gone astray for all kinds of troubling reasons. Certainly, when I began writing this book two years ago, that was the case. And now given the new insurrectionist activity against the Capitol, this has gone into warp speed.
“So to take this idea of rule of law and hammer home that, in essence, we need a giant panopticon to know who everyone is, where they are, what they are doing so that we can enforce rule of law, my God, that is so much more authoritarian than it is democratic.”
The implications go far beyond the protests. Jacobsen points out that the same company that gathered and processed all that biometric data for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Palantir, was also given the COVID-19 contact tracing contract by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In the near term, contract tracing is important and useful. But what happens after the pandemic passes?
“And so the issue really is the big data that is being amalgamated and stored for later use,” Jacobsen said. “And what I ask in the book is: Who controls the save and delete button? Who controls the data that HHS says, ‘Oh, when we get all your core data, your deeply personal identification data that you have just freely given up to the government, to HHS, we’re not going to share data’? But what happens to that data 10 years from now? No one will answer that question.”