Monday, April 21, 2008

Once a General, Alway a Pundit

Major- General: But wait a bit. I object to pirates as sons-in-law.

Pirate King: We object to major-generals as fathers-in-law. But we waive that point. We do not press it. We look over it.
Gilbert and Sullivan, Pirates of Penzance

David Barstow’s front page article in yesterday’s (April 20) New York Times, “Behind Analysts, the Pentagon’s Hidden Hand,” started above the fold and occupied the central quarter of page one before being continued on three interior pages. I didn’t measure the column inches devoted to this single article, but when I used 8x11½ standard paper and Times New Roman 12 pitch print, I ended with 21 Xerox pages – and that did not include any pictures that were part of the article.

Twenty-four hours later and with a catch-up article on washingtonpost.com, the cable news world has been uncharacteristically reticent about the vetting procedures they used (more to the point, the ones they didn’t use) in the competition for expert commentaries on the progress (and even occasionally lack of progress) in the fighting and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq and the controversies about the CIA covert prison system and the military’s overburdened detention facilities in Iraq (including Abu Ghraib), and the prison at Guantanamo Bay.

It is unfathomable that the networks could not see immediately the cul de sac into which they were headed as they hyped the service records and experience of their expert commentators. By so doing, they ran the very real risk of pitting the retirees (“been there, done that”) against their own and free-lance experienced reporters who may actually have resided in a region or country for a number of years (indeed, might even be indigenous) as an accredited foreign correspondent.

But one thing was quite evident early on in both Afghanistan and Iraq: the Pentagon might not know when the first really critical (as opposed to the merely questioning) articles would surface, but they could predict what some of the unfavorable stories would be (e.g., friendly fire, civilians killed in cross fires, lost convoys). So while Pentagon or combatant command public affairs organizations prepared to release official statements of the “what happened,” the cable news outlets were able to present authoritative and dispassionate commentaries about the possible “whys” of the incident that served to reassure the public that the military had been through it all before and still triumphed.

For me, the problem with this arrangement is less about financial conflicts of interest – both the New York Times and the online Washington Post addressed – and more about the ability of flag retirees to disengage objectively from a life of uncritical public allegiance to the institution. Anyone watching and listening to the many retired flag officers who regularly presented their views for the cable news outlets could not miss for long the almost reflexive protective instinct ingrained over thirty or more years of “hard-charging” dedication to military life that – quite rightly in terms of the choices made and commitments endured on behalf of the military as an institution – was rewarded with one or more stars. It is not a question of truth and conscious, deliberate falsehood as much as a psychological inversion that is a bridge too far.

What I have noticed is that there are more doubters, if not dissenters, to the prevailing pro-administration media pundits and commentators among officers who spent their careers in the world of intelligence analysis. While senior officers frequently would observe they were users of intelligence and knew what to ask for, that is not the same as having to pour over numerous, often contradictory reports or snippets of information and piece it together to make sense.. (This disregard for objectivity is also a factor in the administration’s disdain for National Intelligence Estimates that do not support its ideological stance.)

What the good intelligence analyst possesses that a reporter has to learn is the military context in which questions need to be asked and in which answers need to be examined. That is what experience teaches the enquiring mind that, to invert Socrates, allows the examined life to be worthy of living.

2 Comments:

Blogger rasphila said...

Maybe the best response to the Times article and flag officer punditry that I have seen. I've always thought that the some of best analysts of military issues are ex-intelligence officers. The current crop of pundits are, as you say, too protective of the institution that was their life. Intelligence officers have a different mindset and can offer a more critical perspective. Unfortunately, they don't get on television—but some of them do write books.

4:18 PM  
Blogger AC DC said...

I've been active with FNCL's e-mail actions and educational messages for a long time now. However, I've only recently come across your blog and I feel that you would be a good person to interview for my Ethics and War class at GMU. In addition to the class, I've had a lot of experience in the Middle East in conflict resolution and advocacy. Please contact me and let me know if you're available for a phone or online interview. Thanks!

Aaron

PS I'll check the FNCL site to see if there's another way to contact you in case you don't read this.

8:53 PM  

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