Can They Say That?

Originally published in the Media Matters blog Altercations, the author has been kind enough to grant SWJ permission to repost his view on the recent New York Times op-ed The War as We Saw It.

Can They Say That?

Lieutenant Colonel Bob Bateman

I am a 7th Cavalryman. That is to say, within the Army, my personal regimental affiliation is with the 7th Cavalry Regiment. All soldiers are aligned with one regiment, though in this day and age that is largely an ornamental designation. In my case it came about because I commanded within the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry. Because of this, and because of my interest in history, I am effectively the de facto active-duty regimental historian. That is how I know the honorary colonel of my regiment, retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. You might know of Moore from the movie We Were Soldiers, itself based on the book We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young. Or you might have read the interview Charlie Pierce did with Mel Gibson (who played Moore in that movie) about his role depicting then-Lt. Col. Moore for Esquire. I assure you, Mel Gibson, even in full Hollywood action hero mode, is a pale shade of the actual man.

It was from Gen. Moore that I picked up my own code of ethics with regard to what I can and cannot (or should not) say in public. Specifically, when writing for the public, or talking to a reporter, I follow his guidance. Moore had a very simple rule for all of his soldiers with regards to the press, and he laid it out for them as they deployed to Vietnam in the summer of '65. It went something like this: "Talk to any reporter you want. Say what you want, but speak the truth. Do not exaggerate, and stay in your lane. Talk about what you know personally, what you have seen, what you have done, and then stand by your words. " These words of wisdom have guided me for the better part of a decade and a half now, and I credit them with keeping me out of trouble.

I was reminded of this when I saw the New York Times op-ed by seven junior enlisted and non-commissioned officers from the 82nd Airborne Division that is currently rocketing around the Internet, especially on the left side of the spectrum. Since the article's publication, a few Altercators have written to me asking what is likely to happen to these men for writing this critique. The questions came to me, I suppose, because I am periodically a wee bit outspoken myself, and yet I have never been censored, or even rebuked, for anything I have ever written. But these soldiers went a little further than I have, and so there has been concern about their potential fate. I will make this brief. The short answer is "nothing."

The long answer is somewhat more complex.

For starters, Altercators have long noted that I myself stay absolutely away from political criticism of any serving politician. That is because, for me, to do so would be a crime. To have the power of giving orders, vested in my by Congress in that commission thing I mentioned last week, means that I give up something in return. What I gave up was a sliver of my First Amendment rights, specifically the right to criticize politicians above the grade of state governor. But enlisted men do not give up that right. The part of the Uniform Code of Military Justice which applies to me, Article 88, applies only to commissioned officers. Enlisted men, so long as they ensure that they explicitly state that they are expressing their own opinion, can say anything they want ... which is exactly what these men did.

On the other hand, I do have some legitimate critiques of their content. They violated Gen. Moore's rule, you see, because they went outside their lane. Not far outside, and with a few caveats their essay would have been much better, but far enough to undercut the power of their thesis.

The strength of their essay comes from their referent authority as men who are at the absolute tip of the spear. However, because of their position out there, they cannot logically simultaneously lay claim to knowledge of a broader nature. So, when they assert, "Reports that a majority of Iraqi Army commanders are now reliable partners can be considered only misleading rhetoric. The truth is that battalion commanders, even if well meaning, have little to no influence over the thousands of obstinate men under them, in an incoherent chain of command, who are really loyal only to their militias," they are making statements about something on which they know only a little more than you do, from personal experience. This is because those seven men would have worked with only two or three (of more than 100) Iraqi battalions. Their experience with those specific battalions they worked with is "their lane," and had they phrased it that way -- "In our experience with __ different Iraqi battalion commanders, and battalions here in Iraq ..." -- they would be on solid ground. But as it is, they are asserting that they have knowledge which is way above and beyond their positions. Even if some of them work at the Division Headquarters, they would know of only a dozen Iraqi battalions, from their own direct observations.

A similar flaw affects other parts of their essay, such as the statement that "a vast majority of Iraqis feel increasingly insecure and view us as an occupation force." That, so far as I know, is a true statement. But the point is that these soldiers do not know that because of their own presence on the ground, they know of it in the same way that you and I know of it, from reading it in the paper or online. It would have better had they said, "Our personal experiences in ___ district of ___ province was that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis we met there on our daily patrols felt ... and this has been supported by national surveys available in the media which say the same thing for the whole country ..." Do you see the difference?

When I was writing from Iraq, I myself took care to speak only about what I personally saw, what I personally did, and (within the limits of operational security) things that happened around me. I was not in a position, even as a major with a top-secret security clearance working directly for one of the higher level headquarters in Iraq, to make as sweeping statements as their essay did.

That is not to say that many of their grander statements on topics such as political reconciliation within Iraq, or American strategy, are wrong. I leave that for all of you to evaluate on your own. It is only to say that their opinions on strategic issues are no more, or less, than any civilian living in, say, San Francisco or the Bowery. The fact that they, like me, wear uniforms should not convey some sort of magic pixie-dust validity to their opinions on events way beyond their personal experience, just as it does not for mine.

In a way, it is a shame that they wrote their essay in the way that they did. They could have been much more powerful, while conveying the same opinion, had they "stayed in their lane."

Lieutenant Colonel Bob Bateman, US Army, recently left Multinational Security Transition Command - Iraq, and now serves in OSD's Office of Net Assessment.

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More on this Issue

Iraq Vets Respond - David Bellavia, Pete Hegseth, Michael Baumann, Carl Hartmann, David Thul, Knox Nunnally and Joe Worley, Weekly Standard

COIN: On "The War as We Saw It" - Grim, Blackfive

Troops Speak Out - Abu Muqawama, Abu Muqawama

Honesty in Media? - Patriot, A Soldier's Perspective

The War as We Saw It - Google Blog Search

The War as We Saw It - Google News Search

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Comments

When the Administration recently created an organization that hid it's relationship from the public, it opened the door. You might say it invited criticism, however inadvisedly.

"... youtube has copies of TV ads running from Freedomswatch. Their president is none other than Bradley A. Blakeman former deputy assistant to George W. Bush. It is funded by Mel Sembler, former Ambassador to Italy and fund raiser for the Republican party.

The ads feature disabled Iraq vets and bereaved mothers telling us that if we leave Iraq, we will be attacked "just like 9-11.""

http://www.youtube.com/user/Freedomswatch

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/8/24/12588/1749

http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Freedom's_Watch

You might look at it as a challenge from the neoconservative community.