22 October 2006

Two interesting and related topics.

The Lancet study isn't even flying among leftist liberal sources.

Ariania Huffington's pet blog is ripping it to pieces.

"Is that assumption safe? Is death in war a phenomenon like measles? Neil Johnson, a physicist at Oxford who studies patterns in violent conflicts, believes that the answer is no. In an epidemic, he told me, it is safe to assume that all people have an equal chance of catching the disease. But in war and its violent aftermath, this assumption can't possibly be correct. Differences among Shiites and Sunni, politically engaged and remote, rich and poor, region and region -- all of these seem likely to have an impact. So if epidemiological methods produce a number out of line with other methods, it is at least worth asking if the problem is with the epidemiologists. "

"Johnson and his collaborator Michael Spagat, an economist at the University of London, Royal Holloway, believe they have found just such a fatal flaw -- an error that stems from mistakenly assuming that war deaths work like deaths from illness. It seems all the households surveyed by the Lancet authors were on main roads or at intersections of smaller streets with major arteries. It does not take a detailed knowledge of warfare to imagine how households in those locations would be more likely to report car bombings, market-place explosions, and attacks on vehicles."

For historical perspective, consider:

At any given moment, a million images were available to the camera's lens in Saigon alone—and hundreds of million throughout Indochina. But TV crews naturally preferred the most dramatic. That, after all, was their business—show business. It was not news to film farmers peacefully tilling their rice fields, though it might have been argued that nothing happening was news when the American public had been led to believe that almost every Vietnamese farmer was regularly threatened by the Viet Cong, constantly imperiled by battle, and rarely safe from indiscriminate U.S. bombing.

A few hard, documented instances. A burning village was news, even though it was a deserted village used in a Marine training exercise—even though the television correspondent had handed his Zippo lighter to a non-commissioned officer with the suggestion that he set fire to an abandoned house. American soldiers cutting ears off a Viet Cong corpse was news—even if the cameraman had offered the soldiers his knife and "dared" them to take those grisly souvenirs. (Since the antics of the media were definitely not news, the network refrained from apologizing for the contrived "event" when a special investigation called the facts to its attention.) Cargo-nets full of dead South Vietnamese soldiers being lowered by helicopters were news—even if that image implicitly contradicted the prevailing conviction that the South Vietnamese never fought but invariably threw away their weapons and ran.

The competition in beastliness among the networks was even more intense than the similar competition among the representatives of the print media. Only rarely did television depict peaceful fields in which water buffaloes pulled ploughs for diligent farmers—undisturbed by air-bursts, rockets, infantrymen, or guerrillas. One special report was, however, devoted largely to depicting bucolic scenes and untraveled roads when Prince Norodom Sihanouk invited a television correspondent to tour the border areas of Cambodia to prove that his country was not being used by the North Vietnamese as a base for operations against South Viet Nam. A few years later, Sihanouk of course acknowledged that the North Vietnamese had at the time been—and had remained—intensely active in precisely those areas. But television could "prove" either a negative or a positive proposition—depending on where the camera pointed and upon the correspondent's inclination.

One tale involving the aerial jeep of Viet Nam was so magnified that it lost any connection with actual events. That was the story of unwounded Vietnamese soldiers bandaging themselves in order to swarm on to helicopters for evacuation from their raid into Laos in 1971.

That raid on the North Vietnamese installations and supply routes that were called the "Ho Chi Minh Trails" was no great success. But, as I found after two weeks of my own intensive investigation, it was hardly the debacle described by most of the press. South Vietnamese planning for their command's first major independent military operation was faulty; some units deported themselves badly; but others fought well. Nonetheless, descriptions of a "South Vietnamese rout" were made graphic by repeated reports of soldiers bandaging imaginary wounds.

On close questioning, one Western journalist (a wire-service man), who was shaking with indignation at South Vietnamese pusillanimity, admitted that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandaging unbroken skin; but (2) he had seen soldiers bandaging "mere scratches." He finally conceded that: (1) he had seen no soldier bandage a scratch and then "swarm aboard a helicopter"; and (2) having never marched through a jungle, he did not know how rapidly untreated "scratches" could become severe infections in that malignant environment. However, his stories of South Vietnamese cowardice had already been widely published, and he, quite naturally, did not wish to provoke his home office by filing a correction. If he had, the correction might have been filed to the wire-service's world-wide clients. If it had been "moved on the wire," it might not have been printed widely or conspicuously. What had not happened was simply not news . . . even if it had already been reported as having happened.

One of the most persistent "horror stories" was retailed by the Western newspapers and magazines because television could not, obviously, take pictures of torture. Did interrogators ever push an uncommunicative prisoner out of a helicopter to encourage his fellows to talk? No such atrocity has ever been confirmed, despite the swarms of investigative reporters and the many eager informants among officers and diplomats, whose indignation against stupid and inefficient policies was transmuted by the press into indignant protest against the war itself.

One such "incident," staged with a corpse, was turned up by the meticulous research of Günter Lewy for his book America in Vietnam,8 which should be required reading for all war correspondents. A U.S. soldier acquired a photograph of that grisly incident, and went on to invent an account of how a prisoner was killed by being hurled from a helicopter. The imagined event was given wide coverage.

Interrogation by macabre example did make a great story, though it probably never happened and, certainly, has never been proved.

An American correspondent who was later to write a highly praised book on Viet Nam was chuckling over a telegram in the terrace cafe of the Hotel Continental, known to habitués as "the Continental Shelf." His editors had asked him to confirm that it would be neither libelous nor vexatious to quote the U.S. general who had in the correspondent's last dispatch been highly critical of the entire American effort—on the Continental Shelf (which generals, by the way, did not frequent).

"Of course," he told his questioner, "I cabled them to go ahead and not worry. Why should they? After all, I made that general up." The imaginary general in the dispatch made a repeat performance in the correspondent's book.

Sgt. John Ashe (brother of the world-famous tennis player) was a Marine assigned to public relations duties. He delivered a biting indictment of the young wire-service correspondents and the "war freaks" who frequented Da Nang (which was a remote outpost to the media, though not to the military). They would, he recalled, rarely go into the field and never spend the night when they did; would deport themselves as if they had never heard a shot fired with intent to kill before that moment—to their own and the Marines' peril; and then file stories that "bore little or no relation" to what he—and they—had seen. They didn't want to know, Ashe added, what was really happening in the First Corps Area, where the Marines had winkled out the Viet Cong by stationing squads in villages.

Equally lamentable was the failure of the Western press to cover with any thoroughness the Army of the Republic of South Viet Nam, which over the long run was doing most of the fighting. Correspondents were reluctant to commit their safety to units whose resolution they distrusted—sometimes for good reason, more often because of a kind of racist contempt—in order to get stories that interested their editors so little. Coverage of Vietnamese politics, as well as social and economic developments, was sporadic—except for military coups and political crises, and those were often misreported.

Examples of misdirected or distorted reporting could be amassed almost indefinitely. The war, after all, lasted some twenty years. A former Washington Post and New York Times correspondent, Peter Braestrup, has published a two-volume study of the coverage of the Tet Offensive of 1968. Quite significantly, it attracted little interest compared to, say, William Shawcross's Sideshow or Michael Herr's Dispatches.

The obvious explanation is not as ingenuous as it may appear: the majority of Western correspondents and commentators adopted their idiosyncratic approach to the Indochina War precisely because other journalists had already adopted that approach. To put it more directly, it was fashionable (this was, after all, the age of Radical Chic) to be "a critic of the American war."
Decisive in the case of the Americans, who set the tone, was the normally healthy adversary relationship between the U.S. press and the U.S. government. American newspapermen have often felt, with some justification, that if an administration affirmed a controversial fact, that fact—if not prima facie false—was at the least suspect. As the lies of successive administrations regarding Indochina escalated, that conviction became the credo of the press. The psychological process that began with the unfounded optimism of President John F. Kennedy's ebullient "New Frontiersmen," who were by and large believed, ended with the disastrous last stand of Richard Nixon's dour palace guard, who were believed by no one.
The reaction against official mendacity was initially healthy but later became distorted, self-serving, and self-perpetuating. A faulty syllogism was unconsciously accepted: Washington was lying consistently; Hanoi contradicted Washington; therefore Hanoi was telling the truth.

The initial inclination to look upon Hanoi as a fount of pure truth was intelligently fostered by the Communists, who selectively rewarded "critics of the American war" with visas to North Viet Nam. A number of influential journalists and public figures (ranging from former cabinet officers to film actresses) were feted in North Viet Nam. They were flattered not only by the attention and the presumed inside information proffered by the North Vietnamese but by their access to a land closed to most Americans. The favored few—and the aspiring many—helped establish a climate in which it was not only fashionable but, somehow, an act of courage to follow the critical crowd in Saigon and Washington while praising Hanoi. The skeptical correspondent risked ostracism by his peers and conflicts with his editors if he did not run with "the herd of independent minds," if he did not support the consensus.

The larger reason for the tenacity of the consensus went much deeper. It welled from a new view of this war, which was quite different from the press's view of other wars—and from a new messianic approach to the role of the press in wartime. The alteration occurred in three stages, beginning with World War II, proceeding through the Korean War, and culminating in Viet Nam.


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