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August 16, 2008
More On ContractsBy Greyhawk
(Or "are you smarter than a fifth grader?" Talking Barbie says "no".)
My contractors in Iraq article has benefited greatly from many insightful commenters. Those of us who've actually been to Iraq - or even just served in the military are aware of the important roll contractors play in everything we do. Obviously we understand the impact they have on our operations - so we tend to view any blatant effort to misinform the American public on the topic as an attack worthy of response. (We are military, after all.)
It's worth examining the tactic used in this particular attack, evident from the first paragraph of the AP story:
Military contracts in the Iraq theater have cost taxpayers at least $85 billion, and when it comes to providing security, they might not be any cheaper than using military personnel, according to a report released Tuesday.The immediately obvious red flag is the word "might". If something "might" be something, it also might be something else - in this case, if contractors "might not be any cheaper", they "might be cheaper", too. A news story would be worded accordingly, an opinion piece would take the approach used in this example.
Looking into the actual CBO report cited in the AP story we discover almost immediately that there's additional deception involved in the first line.
Government (Defense, State, US Aid) contracts in the Iraq theater total $85 billion, DoD ("military") contracts account for the majority ($76 billion) of the total. Of that number, $54 billion is spent in Iraq, the remainder in neighboring countries ("the Iraq theater") ostensibly directly related to operations in Iraq. I'm not sure why one of the accurate statements that "Military contracts in the Iraq theater have cost taxpayers at least $76 billion" or "Government contracts in the Iraq theater have cost taxpayers at least $85 billion" weren't used. Congress - and the American people - should debate the expense, but likewise that debate should be grounded in fact - not something that sort of approaches fact. The CBO report presents the available facts - the authors should be commended. The AP skews them and renders much of that effort moot. That the skew is slight in this example is all the more puzzling - but the reader's concern for this level of detail will reflect their concern for how their money is spent and by extension the degree to which their opinion on the subject should be taken seriously.
So thus far in sentence one of the AP story we've seen numbers fudging and weasel words. But there's another deceptive technique employed in that opening line - surprisingly it will be exposed for what it is in paragraph 12 of the AP report:
The CBO estimated Tuesday that $6 billion to $10 billion has been spent on security work, and that the prices paid are comparable to a U.S. military unit doing that work.What happened to $85 billion? What happened to might?
Simply put, while the first paragraph is arguably "true", the twelfth is important: it provides actual facts and enables the author, editors, and publishers a defense against any claims that they didn't. After all, it's hardly their fault if a reader doesn't get their message, is it?
But paragraph one is interesting because it combines two facts
A. America is spending a lot of money on contracts in and around Iraq.
B. America uses security contractors in Iraq.
to create a factual (albeit deceptive) statement (A+B). For some reason they then hammered in the deceptive "Military" (vice "government") claim in the first fact, and the weasel word "might" in the second.
Why? One answer might be gleaned from what's thus far missing from the full algebraic expression A+B=?. (If you missed it, what's missing was the =? part. Sorry for the math, but this is an article about economics, right?) In an opinion piece an author would have suggested an answer and attempted to convince readers to agree, in a news story they might present all options or none, along with arguments for and against various solutions. In the AP story the author insists that both A and B equal something they do not - this increases the potential difficulty of solving the equation correctly.
And that's the first paragraph.
Other examples of using this technique can be found elsewhere - the sharp reader probably knows them when he or she sees them.
Here's one that was popular at the start of the surge:
A. Marines serve 8-month tours in Iraq, many are on their third or fourth.
B. Soldiers serve 12-month tours, during the surge that was increased to 15. A few are shipping out for their third tour.
"Soldiers and Marines are serving more and longer tours in Iraq, and as the Army extends tour lengths to 15 months some are preparing to deploy for their fourth or fifth rotation in Iraq"
Add in Air Force four-month tours and you can have all sorts of fun with that one.
Here's another that seems to be replayed frequently:
A. Thousands of Soldiers get re-enlistment bonuses. Infantrymen - the bulk of the Army's numbers - can get up to a maximum of $10,000 depending on their rank, experience, and length of reenlistment.
B. A very few other soldiers - those in extremely difficult to fill specialties that require lengthy training or unique and rare qualifications - can qualify for very large bonuses up to a $40,000 maximum, again based on rank, experience, and length of reenlistment.
"In an effort to retain thousands of soldiers needed during the unpopular Iraq war, the Army is increasingly offering cash bonuses of up to $40,000 to maintain it's depleted ranks."
Factual, even if they don't add up to whole truth. Again, this sort of stuff doesn't really matter - unless it shapes the national debate. But surely our elected representatives are a bit too sharp to be hoodwinked and bamboozled by this sort of first grade math problem, right? Surely they wouldn't accept that sort of ignorance and assist its further spread? Surely they know the facts about the American military....
Posted by Greyhawk / August 16, 2008 4:08 PM | Permalink
November 26, 2010
I think anyone who's ever pondered the "comment" option - once only available on blogs and bulletin boards, now ubiquitous on almost any web site - will appreciate this:
The so-called faculty of writing is not so much a faculty of writing as it is a faculty of thinking. When a man says, "I have an idea but I can't express it"; that man hasn't an idea but merely a vague feeling. If a man has a feeling of that kind, and will sit down for a half an hour and persistently try to put into writing what he feels, the probabilities are at least 90 percent that he will either be able to record it, or else realize that he has no idea at all. In either case, he will do himself a benefit.
That's wisdom from the past, captured for posterity at the US Naval Institute, shared via the web on the institute's 137th anniversary.
From their about page:
"The Naval Institute has three core activities," among them, History and Preservation:
The Naval Institute also has recently introduced Americans at War, a living history of Americans at war in their own words and from their own experiences. These 90-second vignettes convey powerful stories of inspiration, pride, and patriotism.
Take a look at the collection, and you'll see it's not limited to accounts from those who served on ships at sea, members of the other branches are well-represented.
I'm fortunate to have met USNI's Mary Ripley, she's responsible for the institute's oral history program (and she's the daughter of the late John Ripley, whose story is told here). She also deserves much credit for their blog. ("We're not the Navy nor any government agency. Blog and comment freely.") We met at a milblog conference - Mary knew (and I would come to realize) that milbloggers are the 21st-century version of exactly what the US Naval Institute is all about. Once that light bulb came on in my head, I mentioned a vague idea for a project to her - milblogs as the 21st century oral history that they are.
"Put that in writing," she said (of course - see first paragraph above!) - and here's part of the result.
Shortly after the first tent was pitched by the American military in Iraq a wire was connected to a computer therein, and the internet was available to a generation of Americans at war - many of whom had grown up online. From that point on, at any given moment, somewhere in Iraq a Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine was at a keyboard sharing the events of his or her day with the folks back home. While most would simply fire off an email, others took advantage of the (then) relatively new online blogging platforms to post their thoughts and experiences for the entire world to see. The milblog was born - and from that moment to this stories detailing everything from the most mundane aspects of camp life to intense combat action (often described within hours of the event) have been available on the web...
And et cetera - but since you're reading this on a milblog, you probably knew that. And you know that milblogs aren't just blogs written by troops at war, that many friends, family members, and supporters likewise documented their story of America at war online in near-real time, as those stories developed.
The diversity in membership of that group is broad, the one thing we all have in common is the impulse to make sense of the seemingly senseless, and communicate the tale - for each of us that impulse was strong enough to overcome whatever barriers prevent the vast majority of people from doing the same. Everyone at some point has some vague idea they believe should be shared - we were the people who, from some combination of internal and external urging, found and spent those many half hours persistently trying to write it down.
But where will all that be in another 137 years? Or five or ten, for that matter. That's something I've asked myself since at least 2004 - when I wrote this:
Membership in the ghost battalion has grown in the years since, and an ever growing majority of those abandoned-but-still-standing sites are vanishing. Have you checked out Lt Smash's site lately? How about Sgt Hook's? If you're a long-time milblog reader you know the first widely-read milblog from Operation Iraq Freedom and the first widely-read milblog from Afghanistan are both gone from the web. If you're a relative newcomer to this world you may never even have heard of them - or the dozens upon dozens of others who carried forth the standard they set down.
If you have a vague notion that something should be done about that, (a notion I've heard expressed more than once...) then you and I and the good folks at the US Naval Institute are in agreement. Preserving the history documented by the milbloggers is just one of the goals of the milblog project, the once-vague idea that we're now making real.
And it's a big idea, if I say so myself - too big to explain in one simple blog post, so stand by for more. Likewise, it's too big a task to be accomplished by just one person. So if you're a milblogger (and exactly what is a milblogger? is a topic for much further discussion on its own) I'm asking for your help. All I'll really need is just a little bit (maybe just one or two of those half hours...) of your time, and your willingness to tell the tale.
We've already made history, it's time to save it.
(More to follow...)
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