Human Rights Watch and Their Analyst's 'Weird' Hobby

One can measure the failures of the film American Beauty in so many ways, but perhaps the best is to realize that the screenwriter was so unsure of his audience’s ability to spot a creep that he had to make Kevin Spacey’s next-door neighbor not just a sadist and a closet case but also a collector of Nazi memorabilia. I bring this up because a fetish for the baubles of fascism is generally thought to be a good way of alienating civilized company. The auction house Christie's refuses to sell the stuff. And whatever the interpretative fallacies of the late Susan Sontag, she was surely onto something when she spotted the correlation between this form of “collecting” and pornography.

So when Human Rights Watch first learned that Marc Garlasco, its senior military analyst and a former Pentagon official, moonlights on the internet as “Flak 88,” an obsessive buyer and chronicler of Nazi war paraphernalia, it might have understood right away that it had a public relations crisis on its hands. Instead, the NGO did what it always does when confronted with embarrassing questions about its personnel: it blamed supporters of Israel.

Charging that critics of HRW have accused Garlasco of being a Nazi or an anti-Semite, though failing to cite any of these critics by name, the statement HRW put out read: “This accusation is demonstrably false and fits into a campaign to deflect attention from Human Rights Watch’s rigorous and detailed reporting on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by the Israeli government. Garlasco has co-authored several of our reports on violations of the laws of war, including in Afghanistan, Georgia, and Iraq, as well as by Israel, Hamas, and Hezbollah.” Furthermore, HRW insisted, Garlasco “is the author of a monograph on the history of German Air Force and Army anti-aircraft medals and a contributor to websites that promote serious historical research into the Second World War (and which forbid hate speech).”

HRW’s push-back was followed by Garlasco’s own attempt at self-defense in the Huffington Post to depict himself as a serious military historian, an avocation he attributes to having had two relatives serve on either side during the war. Garlasco wrote as if he had no idea his behavior could bemuse or offend anybody, going so far as to suggest that his after-hours hobby bolsters his work as a professional military investigator and analyst. For that reason, he said, he has never hidden his side gig from anyone “because there’s nothing shameful in it, however weird it might seem to those who aren’t fascinated by military history.”

Clearly, however, he has not been all that transparent with his employer, as HRW has just decided to suspend him, with pay, pending an internal investigation in which it hopes to “learn everything we need to know,” in the words of spokesperson Carroll Bogart. Well, what else could HRW need to know given that strongly worded press release?

Garlasco’s extracurricular activity has been well documented by Omri Ceren at the blog Mere Rhetoric and by NGO Monitor, after both trudged through thousands of comments that “Flak 88” posted to the websites German Combat Awards and Wehrmacht-awards. (No evidence could be found of Garlasco’s alter ego posting to any Allied-related military forums, nor has he or HRW offered up any evidence of his having done so). In these posts, Garlasco, whose screen icon is an image of a German badge with a swastika, enthuses over his personal collection of Nazi knickknacks; he says he takes out his German war medals once a year to marvel at and photograph them.