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January 21, 2008

Iraq: The Never Ending Crisis Factory

When it comes to the war in Iraq, it seems to rain every day. For the mainstream media any happenstance related to the war is immediately seized upon as a harbinger of doom; a sign, portent, or ill omen. Take last week's splashy story in the New York Times. A bevy of reporters, laboring arduously in the field of preconceived notions, uncovered exactly what they expected to find.

Upon reading the article, experienced readers of the Times will no doubt uncover exactly what they expected to find, too. Unsurprisingly, if journalistic ethics don't prohibit one from counting DUIs, crimes that occurred before the allegedly precipitating combat stress, cases where the defendant acted in self defense, or an egregious case of drag racing, there's absolutely nothing to prevent an intrepid reporter from making statements like these:

Given that many veterans rebound successfully from their war experiences and some flourish as a result of them, veterans groups have long deplored the attention paid to the minority of soldiers who fail to readjust to civilian life.

...Clearly, committing homicide is an extreme manifestation of dysfunction for returning veterans, many of whom struggle in quieter ways, with crumbling marriages, mounting debt, deepening alcohol dependence or more-minor tangles with the law.

But these killings provide a kind of echo sounding for the profound depths to which some veterans have fallen, whether at the bottom of a downward spiral or in a sudden burst of violence.

Translation: no matter now normal they may seem on the surface, "those people" are all dysfunctional even if by some miracle they manage not to shoot up decent folk like yourself. The Times just thought you ought to know.

In case you live next door to one of them.

The Times story is blissfully free of anything so tiresome as context. Apparently readers have no need to know how many vets have served, the civilian murder rate for the same demographic, or how the Times' "discovery" compares to existing homicide data:

A very conservative estimate of how many different service members have passed through Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait since 2003 is 350,000 (and no, that's not double-counting those with repeated tours of duty).

Now consider the Justice Department's numbers for murders committed by all Americans aged 18 to 34 - the key group for our men and women in uniform. To match the homicide rate of their peers, our troops would've had to come home and commit about 150 murders a year, for a total of 700 to 750 murders between 2003 and the end of 2007.

Fact free accusations, you see, have the virtue of being difficult to pin down and even harder to refute. After all, a "90% increase" in military "homicides" as reported by the press must mean something? So instead of context, we get anecdotal statistics: a parade of stories meant to sock us in the gut and stop our brains from questioning the narrative.

Following hard on the Times' expose, Slate's Fred Kaplan serves up yet another manufactured media crisis. Blatantly ignoring Lt. Col. John Nagl's explanation for his decision to retire after 20 years in the Army, Kaplan sounds the alarm!

The early retirement of a lieutenant colonel ordinarily wouldn't merit the slightest mention. But today's news that Lt. Col. John Nagl is leaving the Army is a big deal.

So, why is something that "ordinarily wouldn't merit the slightest mention" suddenly such "a big deal", other than the obvious opportunity it provides to don sackcloth and ashes and pronounce the Army broken? After all as Kaplan just informed us, this sort of thing happens all the time. Go ahead, Fred - lay it on us:

It's another sign, more alarming than most, that the U.S. military is losing its allure for a growing number of its most creative young officers. More than that, it's a sign that one of the Army's most farsighted reforms—a program that some senior officials regard as essential—may be on the verge of getting whacked.

This is nothing short of ridiculous. In the first place, Nagl himself contradicts Kaplan, but only after Kaplan stuns us senseless with several paragraphs of loony conspiracy theories that he himself admits are completely unsupported by anything Nagl has to say:

Thomas Ricks, the Washington Post reporter who broke the story of Nagl's retirement, quotes Nagl as saying that he's leaving the Army because his family wants to settle down and because working at the Center for a New American Security will allow him to stay focused on the work that he loves. Nagl told me the same thing in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon and emphasized that, contrary to some rumors floating around, he is not leaving out of anger or disgruntlement.

Still, some officers who are sympathetic with Nagl's views say they find it discouraging that the Army can't find some way to hang on to a soldier of his caliber. For one reason or another, junior and midlevel officers—lieutenants, captains, and lieutenant colonels—are leaving the Army in droves.

This is the old "He may say that officially, but my [unnamed] inside sources know better" meme. Just trust him - he's Fred Kaplan and he hasn't got a dog in this fight. As for his sources, it may be discouraging when good people choose to retire at 20 years, but that happens everywhere. It's hardly a crisis. And besides, the meme that Nagl's departure is more evidence that junior officers are leaving "in droves" is well refuted in a thoughtful post by Lex:

This isn’t a case of junior officers voting with their feet: Nagl is retiring at 20 years. And while this may be a loss for the Army - whose appetite for senior officers to push PowerPoint briefs to place-conscious generals yields to no other service - he’s putting his powerful intellect to the service of his country in a different venue, with a potentially more immediate impact on the national debate.

So: Thanks for your service, colonel.

westpoint.gif Exactly. But let's take another look at the dishonest brain drain meme. How many have noticed the sleight of hand practiced by the media on this subject over the past 6 -8 months?

Recent graduates of the US Military Academy at West Point are choosing to leave active duty at the highest rate in more than three decades, a sign to many military specialists that repeated tours in Iraq are prematurely driving out some of the Army's top young officers.

Let's take a look at the graphic the Boston Globe uses to illustrate this point. I took the liberty of annotating it slightly to make a few things more apparent. The first fact to fairly leap off the handy chart supplied by the Globe (though they barely mention it) is that for most of the time period covered by the chart, 30% or more of West Point grads have left at the 5 year mark.

Another interesting fact is that West Point grads make up only about 12-13% of Army officers each year and only 20% of General officers. An interesting survey taken of West Point students recently belies the media's assertion that West Pointers are predisposed to stay in the Army and are somehow being "turned off" by repeated deployments:

Recently, cadets were questioned as to why they chose to enter the Academy. Their answers reveal that the Academy had been recruiting some of the wrong people. One recruiting representative from the Academy's admissions office acknowledged during a briefing that only 19 to 38 percent of incoming cadets give "desire to be a career Army officer" as their main reason for attending the Academy. This means that somewhere between 81 and 62 percent are attending for some other reason.

And what explains that region of the Globe's chart - nearly one-third - in which MORE West Point grads were leaving than at the last point shown? There were no "repeated Iraq tours" then, no brutal ops tempo.

The interesting (and oddly unasked) question is this: just what would Fred Kaplan have the Army do to convince officers like John Nagl to stay? Should they do what any civilian employer would do - compete freely with large bonuses and competitive pay packages? As Kaplan freely admits, Nagl is hardly the "average" Army officer.

He is a top performer. Yet according to Kaplan, the system is "broken" because a top performer like Nagl, after serving honorably for 20 years, wants to try something different, because the Army with its noncompetitive pay and benefits can't compete with the vastly more attractive civilian sector. Does Fred Kaplan support giving the Army the ability to conduct flexible pay negotiations to attract and hold top performers like Nagl?

Of course he doesn't.

He expects Nagl to do what neither he, nor anyone he knows would do: work for less money than he knows his services will command in a free market. One strongly suspects the only concession Kaplan would like the Army to use as a bargaining chip would be to say, "We'll just stop acting so military. No more PCS moves, no more fighting, no more nasty, messy wars."

This doesn't even begin to address the media's pervasive substitution of West Point officer attrition for regular officer attrition:


Again, West Pointers make up 12-13% of the officer corps. But retention of junior officers overall is well below the historic 10 year average of 8.5%. Odd, isn't it, that this piece of information is never mentioned by the media? Perhaps it undercuts the narrative.

And then there is USA Today:

During the worst of Bravo Troop's 15-month tour in Iraq, when soldiers were dying in bunches, families here poured out their fear, frustrations and even hysteria onto one young woman: Bana Miller.

She's not Army. She's not trained. Her only qualification, then at age 24, was being an officer's wife who volunteered to run Bravo Troop's Family Readiness Group —a job of e-mailing and organizing potluck dinners in peacetime.

But when Bravo went to war, she became a social worker, grief counselor and a 24-hour hotline overnight. At various times, wives threatened to commit themselves to a mental institution or go to the media if Miller did not help bring their husbands home.

"I was in this alternative universe thinking: 'What has my life become?' " says Miller, who grew up in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia and married the boy she met in seventh grade.

As the Iraq war nears a sixth year, the Army has more than 3,000 volunteers such as Bana Miller, and many are buckling under the pressure of duties that they never expected would be so hard or last so long. The Army and Marine Corps lean on these family support volunteers to be the first stop for families struggling to deal with war, separation and loss.

Actually, the Marine Corps (at least) does not want wives acting as grief counselors, social workers, or 24-hour hotlines. I will be extremely surprised to find that the Army has asked anyone to undertake these duties.

The key word, for those who appear to be having trouble with their own language, is volunteer:

Volunteers are told by the Army and Marine Corps to be dispassionate — provide resource contacts to troubled families and send them on their way. But volunteers find this difficult, particularly when they all have spouses fighting side by side in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"They take it upon themselves to mother everyone," Meyers says.

"When somebody is in pain," Miller says, "my first reaction is to help alleviate that pain and to help them grieve in whatever way they grieve, just holding their hand while they're going through a funeral process, or fielding phone calls or whatever they needed me to do. … I was the person there to give them a hug.

"It's a difficult thing to try and turn off and say, 'You know, I need to go home and get some sleep.' "

I read Miller's story, and I cringed. Because like many, many Marine and Army, and Navy, and Air Force wives, I have felt those same feelings.

But the fact remains that the Army did not ask Ms. Miller to mother her husband's battalion, and it is not a "crisis" if unpaid volunteers who deliberately choose to ignore the terms of the programs for which they sign up are finding that (surprise!) they are getting burned out.

It was, in fact, utterly predictable. And yes, heartwrenching.

But let's interject a little cold sanity here.

During WWII, Korea, and Vietnam there were no cell phones, no email, no family support groups, no Key Volunteers. Entire generations of military families somehow made it through extended combat deployments without social workers to talk to their children about their feelings, without grief counselors, free babysitting, pre-deployment briefs, re-entry briefs, free counseling to help you readjust to life with your spouse, hazardous duty pay, or special benefits voted by Congress to compensate you for a job you always knew your husband or wife might someday have to do. when. you. signed. up.

My God, how did they do it? Why aren't The Greatest Generation roaming the streets like deranged psycho-killers on a hair trigger, primed for the slightest excuse to go on a killing spree? How did our parents stay off drugs, avoid the booze, stay married to each other? Why didn't they have the decency to be properly traumatized by their experiences?

Didn't they realize they were in CRISIS? And just where the hell was Congress in all of this? How could anyone be expected to solve their problems without federal intervention and a massive infusion of tax dollars? Didn't anyone listen to Walter Crank... err...Cronkite?

All this has made me thank God for the New York Times. Obviously we Americans lack the fundamental ability to detect sickness in our own culture. It takes great institutions like The Times to operate as the canary in the cultural mineshaft, to let us know how far we've drifted from what is sane and healthy.

Yes, I now see the error of my ways. I have adopted The Times as my cultural bellwether. Because if anyone can keep America honest, it's the New York Times.

Posted by Cassandra at January 21, 2008 12:30 PM

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One of my daughter's is married to an Army CPT who is now on his second tour. She played an enormous role in the battalion- and company-level FRG during the first tour. (She was coined by the Rear D commander for her efforts, too.)

There were spouses who ranged from extraordinary to pathetic, with family situations that covered the full range. There are also trained professionals available to help handle these things. So, just as the Marine Corps doesn't expect its Key leaders (I think that is the term used) back home to be unpaid counselors, psychologists, and so forth, neither does the U.S. Army. That someone might attempt to do so is a measure of that person's good intentions and generous spirit. There are limits to what individuals can absorb, too.

Most of the spouses my daughter interacted with during the first tour and now miss their deployed family member, have their good days and bad days, and have enough sense to know the bad days will pass. There isn't any pissing and moaning. However, there are always a few looking for an audience, and reporters invariably seem to latch on to this very small group. One way to look at this is that too many of the rest of us don't have sense enough to recognize whining when we hear it and put it in its proper place.

Sometimes I wonder whether we would even notice after a week or two in the NYTimes disappeared off the face of the earth. I guess if you have to line a bird cage or wrap up kitty litter, it might create a problem.....

Posted by: Robert A. Connolly at January 21, 2008 09:10 PM

I hear the struggle and as an ex-marine I have many friends over there. WWW.HOMESICKGI.COM is there for the families left behind. You are paying the ultimate sacrifice and we salute you. WWW.HOMESICKGI.COM..."bringing military families together."

Posted by: John Ellis at January 21, 2008 10:39 PM

That someone might attempt to do so is a measure of that person's good intentions and generous spirit. There are limits to what individuals can absorb, too.

Exactly. This is what aggravated me so much about the USA Today piece.

I hesitated to write about it, because when you see someone put themselves out front like that (especially someone so young) you know it came from a good place, and the last thing you want to do is sound as though you are criticizing them. But that was not the point of this post. The point was that anecdotes (especially ones where the reporter seems to intentionally ignore evidence that contradicts their thesis) don't make terribly convincing evidence of broad-based systemic problems.

There are very good reasons these programs are set up the way they are set up. One of my biggest frustrations with them has been the inability of many people (including myself, at times) to keep perspective, but more importantly to realize that no one can take over your life without your permission. I've sat in I don't know how many training sessions where I've heard women comment that they "can't" not step in and try to solve people's problems, or they "can't" not violate some other common sense rule that is in place to protect both them and the program in general from turning into something it was never meant to be.

I don't believe the government can replace family, friends, and above all individual self reliance. It *can* do a better job of providing the tools families need to cope with deployments. But the actual coping needs to be done by the families, and families will be stronger and better off if they learn to develop their *own* support systems and not rely on government or the command.

The bottom line is, your husband is going to be gone for however long. That is an unalterable fact. You can choose to view that as a series of tragedies or you can choose to view it as a chance to grow as a person, to do some things you were probably afraid to do before, to learn to be more independent and strong, to develop resources of your own that don't involve depending on your husband. The odd thing is that for most military wives, their husbands really aren't around most of the time anyway to help solve mundane problems.

Mine never was. He was either in the field or at work 24/7. So a deployment is not that different in that respect. If your life and your happiness depend on the presence of another person, you are setting yourself up for problems because none of us is guaranteed that in life.

None of us. We are blessed if we have found happiness in marriage, but it can be taken away at any moment for reasons that have nothing to do with war. If people are calling you threatening to commit suicide b/c their husband is gone, chances are there are larger issues than just deployment and you are not the appropriate person to deal with those problems.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 21, 2008 11:50 PM

Excellent article, which I've linked to here.

Posted by: No Oil for Pacifists at January 22, 2008 12:32 AM

Your point about anecdotes was well-taken and clearly true. In my experience (part of it as a newspaper reporter when I was much younger), the vast majority of reporters have very little understanding of an organization as complex as the U.S. Army or the U.S. Marine Corps. As I am sure you know from your own experience, some facets of life in these organizations involve nuances. After you have been around for a good while, it is much clearer what is really happening.

Reporters rarely have (or will take) the opportunity to do this learning. So, at a time like this when the nation is at war, they are completely unprepared to understand what is happening inside these organization. They fall back on what they must believe to be (trying to be charitable here...not sure why) are illuminating anecdotes. Virtually every time, they get it wrong. Some things cannot be known without having walked the walk, and this is too rare an occurrence in this country these days.

When some spouses lose it (some never had it...unfortunately), reporters seize on it as evidence of the failed Bush administration policy. In fact, it is just the usual human frailties. It takes extraordinary individuals to do the job of soldiers and Marines, and sometimes the spouses aren't up to the same standard. This must surely reflect on the makeup of the spouse, not on the service. Last I checked, the armed services don't exactly hide the nature of the job from recruits and families.

For what it is worth, the same is true in other areas of work like investment banking, consulting, and so forth where one spouse can be routinely gone on business trips for all but a few days per week, week in and week out. Divorce rates are very high there, too, reflecting, at least in part, that some spouses are unable to cope with separation. Again, only those who actively choose to ignore the clear signals can be surprised by this job/lifestyle.

Posted by: Robert A. Connolly at January 22, 2008 09:09 AM

I don't find it all that surprising (or even unforgivable) that reporters don't 'get' military life. After all, many military people get lost in the weeds. It is so easy to get wrapped around the axle and lose sight of the bigger picture, especially when you're dealing with emotions and people's 'pain'. That's a hard thing to ignore.

What I do find hard to excuse is the lack of objectivity or what I'd call professional curiosity. Does it never occur to these people that the ones who are willing to talk to them aren't always representative, or may have an axe to grind? Does it never occur to them to provide some context or perspective on their emotional anecdotes - show the reader, "OK, but how does this fit into the larger picture - how prevalent is this problem?" Do some research for Pete's sake. At least ATTEMPT to show both sides (which is what reporters always *say* is the hallmark of a professional journalist).

If you start out with a hypothesis and then just find handy anecdotes that support it, you're not being objective. It makes for gripping articles, but it's not informative. I get aggravated b/c I can't tell you how many posts I've waved off from b/c I did some initial research and couldn't back up what I wanted to say from the data.

I concluded that I wasn't sure my point wasn't grounded in partisan pique, so if I couldn't pull in some data, I didn't post at all. I am not perfect, but I do at least try. And I am not a professional and really make no promises to be impartial - VC is about opinion and not news reporting.

Consequently, I'm critical of journalists who actually get paid for this sort of thing and don't seem to provide any context.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 22, 2008 09:52 AM

Indeed, the increasingly apparent shame of journalists is that regular folks like yourself can demonstrate convincingly (and fairly readily, I might add) that their 'stories' are really just stories, not news and not the facts. This policing of newspapers and other news outlets is fairly unprecedented, and a wonderful (if unexpected) consequence of connectivity and instant communication. No wonder the Fourth Estate is so touchy about getting their dirty laundry hung out in public by the great unwashed masses.

My suspicion, and it is only that, is that the university journalism schools are slow to take up the task of pointing out the egregious errors of the print and broadcast news media because they are too caught up in their own (typically left-wing) politics. Further complicating the problem is that to expose the failings of the NY Times and other outlets will complicate the difficulties of placing students in permanent jobs and internships with those companies.

In the end, I know that my editor 30 years ago would have fired me in a heartbeat for the stupid things published in the NY Times on the military in the past 12 months. Any one of those many screw-ups would have brought the hammer down in a heartbeat. As the Marine Corps begins a third week of testimony down the road at Camp Lejeune into a shooting in Afghanistan, I am struck by the contrast with a newspaper that rarely (if ever) owns up to mistakes and an organization that will publicly hold its members to an incredible standard in life and death situations. I'd hang with those jarheads any day over the knuckleheads in the newsroom.

Posted by: Robert A. Connolly at January 22, 2008 10:36 AM

I'm sure you've seen the most excellent snark from Iowahawk, but for those who haven't... you should:

Posted by: MikeD at January 22, 2008 11:38 AM

The New York Times and the media that echoes their stories are the enemy's propaganda wing here in America.

The Left wants to talk about rightwing bias in the media. This isn't about bias. This is about cruelty and enemy sabotage operations.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at January 23, 2008 11:19 AM

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the - Web Reconnaissance for 01/23/2008 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 January 23, 2008 01:25 PM