August 6, 2006
I Love the Smell of Pulitzers in the MorningBy Edward Anderson
One of the quickest, surest ways for a journalist to obtain the life altering, career making award known as the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism is to expose aberrant behavior on the part of US Armed Forces service members. Service members make up a cross section of American society and at any given time there will be criminals within the ranks just as in society, though decidedly under represented due to the military's extensive efforts to cull them out. But criminal activity does happen in the military. And for an opportunistic journalist the higher up the chain this activity can be attributed, the better.
The ultimate goal of some reporters is to link a soldier's act to a specific order from a commander that can be traced to a policy decision from an elected leader, ideally in a political party unliked by the journalist. This is the Excalibur of journalism, jerking the story from the stone of the military—industrial complex to hold overhead for all to see the corruption that leads all the way to the top. Of course, the story like the sword would remain invisible if not for the super human ability of the anointed journalist.
One can understand this and even to some degree see the necessity of this methodology to check real corruption. As a veteran, I dislike the process but recognize it has a usefulness and legitimacy when carried out with integrity and for good cause. On the other hand, sometimes it is nothing more than a Pulitzer grab or even worse, a political hit piece.
The logical progression here is obvious. Find a soldier who did wrong. Find an order that was given that can be linked to the transgression. Find a senior commander or policy maker that laid the ground work for that order. De—legitimize the soldier's criminal behavior (as it should be) and that soldier's behavior de—legitimizes the orders, the policy, the war, and ultimately the political party holding office. Some journalists make the links fit in this chain no matter the legitimacy or human cost. In doing so, intermediary commanders are unfairly besmirched in the process of linking the chain to the ultimate target, the Commander—in—Chief.
An example of this journalistic methodology can be seen in the case of the Bridge at No Gun Ri. In 1999, the Associated Press reported an alleged atrocity covered up since the Korean War, its reporters winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism. The story revealed what was no doubt a case of soldiers firing on innocent civilians, though many of the details such as body count are still disputed. A key witness to the AP story later admitted he wasn't there when presented with his orders that proved he wasn't there. West Point historian, Robert Bateman has provided significant evidence that counters much of the AP research.
The focus of the research was not the act of killing the civilians, as often happens by mistake in war. The main point of the piece is that these soldiers acted under specific orders from the US military to kill innocent civilians, thus demonstrating monstrous intent rather than an understandable yet horrendous mistake. The US Army's Inspector Generals Office performed an investigation with the South Korean government that was reviewed by independent experts. This report made a final determination:
So the United States and South Korea decided it was an accident not an order despite the Pulitzer Prize.
This bit of history is significant now because bubbling just beneath the surface onto the pages of the New York Times, LA Times and AP are after the next Pulitzer Prize—winning expose. Four US soldiers are on trial charged with murdering innocent Iraqis.
It is not my place to dispense a verdict on guilt or innocence on that matter, but the reporting notes that one of the men admitted culpability. So it would seem we have bad actors caught in wrongdoing who are on trial and will almost surely pay for their alleged crimes. One would think case closed, but unfortunately no, not with the smell of Pulitzer in the air.
During the trial, some of the soldiers have made statements in testimony and in private interviews designed to diminish their transgression. They have made the outright accusation that the chain of command had given them orders to kill all civilians. And Pulitzer—sniffing reporters have leapt on the unfounded and refuted allegations as headlines for articles designed to smear America's true heroes.
The AP began the process with this article:
Accused troops: We were under orders to kill; date July 21, 2006: Troops: Under orders to kill — Conflict in Iraq — MSNBC.com
This accusation is an integral part of the story and would seem to be fair reporting.
The AP also reported another witness who said 'he doesn't recall brigade commander Col. Michael Steele ordering the soldiers to "kill all military—aged males"' although this denial is buried much further into the story than the blazing headline. The sword tugging has begun.
This article is followed by another AP article by Ryan Lenz. The original story had been replaced with what would appear to be an abridged version. The original story contained this passage:
(AP) Soldier testifies commander ordered troops to 'kill all of them' |
So now the AP has intimated that the senior NCO was also responsible because he told the soldiers 'good job.' To anyone who is familiar with the army it is obvious that the First Sergeant performs a logistical role in combat and could not know the circumstances immediately following the killings. This statement certainly reflects a soldier with an axe to grind and a reporter providing the wheel on which to sharpen it. Or perhaps it is more of a fabled sword than an axe. Either way, the journalists give a sense of expanding culpability in these articles contrary to testimony from other witnesses not implicated in the killings and mentioned in the articles themselves.
And the trend continues. The New York Times is now reporting under the headline
And to further support the growing evidence of the barbarity of the command, the article notes:
So we see a coalescing image of a barbarous command. What these reporters are obviously lacking is any effort to put these statements into the context of war. In a court of law and on a newspaper page, killing a person sounds a lot different than in a combat unit. In a combat unit when you say kill them all, everybody knows you mean the enemy not anybody in the area. And keeping track of how many kills you have in combat is essential to measure unit effectiveness though it certainly may sound egregious in a court room especially when provided in a media report without context.
Further down in the piece it is noted:
Of course this is the case. Only a sick person who had no moral understanding of combat would take responsible orders to kill the enemy as free reign to commit murder. Considering that at least one of these men has admitted it, and another soldier has testified they threatened to kill him if he talked, it is beyond reason as to why these reporters would continue to portray the command as if it was capable of ordering this act. It goes beyond merely reporting the accusation.
Time and again these reporters apply irrelevant factoids taken completely out of context to support what is an otherwise obviously false allegation. These reporters are making a case out of thin air. It is almost as if they barely perceive the sword slipping from the stone and are desperately struggling to free it before they are exposed as false would—be—kings.
And joining the Pulitzer frenzy are Borzou Daragahi and Julian E. Barnes, LA Times Staff Writers with the article Officers Allegedly Pushed Kill Counts. Of course the LA Times reinforces the argument that this was a command driven event with quotes from unnamed officials: (must register to view)
The bigger thing here is the failure of the chain of command," said a Defense Department official familiar with the investigations.
And the LA Times goes even farther:
Of course it is true that in such a serious matter any allegation made by these men against their command will be investigated. The report doesn't bother to note what may be obvious to some but unknown to others. The fact that any investigation in and of itself means nothing as far as the accurateness of the allegations. The investigation will take place just to cover all the bases. The report also states:
What exactly is the basis of this reprimand? So far the only evidence provided against Colonel Steele at least publicly is the testimony of men who it would appear committed murder and are looking for a way out. One might expect a reprimand for any commander of soldiers involved in these circumstances despite the commander's leadership style. And more than likely it was matched with one for the company and battalion commander as well. This speaks nothing to the commands culpability, yet it is presented in the LA Times article as evidence that it may be worse than Haditha.
Tough but potentially reckless? According to whom? The soldiers on trial? Handed out knives? What combat unit doesn't hand out knives at the unit level in recognition for good work? But then, the LA Times expects you not to know that this is a common occurrence that is taken in the spirit meant, that you did your job well. The LA Times would put this completely innocuous bit of heraldry in front of the typical reader who does not know military customs to draw an image similar to cutting off ears in Vietnam.
The LA Times goes on to state:
Clearly the Colonel's instructions were to target the enemy al Qaeda and Iraqi insurgents. As evidence I provide one bit of reasoning. If these soldiers were under orders to kill everybody, why did the rest of the command disobey those orders? Why aren't there one hundred men on trial for murder? The answer can't be more obvious. Because the rest of the command knew the Rules of Engagement apply at every circumstance and don't need an excuse for murder.
Edward Anderson is the pseudonym of an employee of a major news organization who must remain anonymous.