Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Who Will Watch the Watchers?

This weekend, some guy called to ask me multiple-choice, phone-survey questions about Christmas trees, the war in Iraq, and the Marine Corps. He thought it was pronounced "corpse."

Roughly a year after the Tet offensive, I was living a little northwest of Da Nang, serving as a radio operator in the 26th Marines. I was back at regimental headquarters, when one of our OPs was attacked. It was tough sledding, and one of our linemen -- the guys who laid and maintained phone lines -- was out there with them, defending himself as hard as he could.

Every Marine a rifleman.

At some point, he did what they'd taught us all not to do: he pulled the pin on a grenade and popped the spoon before he threw it.

They'd explained it to us in ITR. Two of the things we all saw in WWII movies were arrant nonsense: (1) pulling the pin on a grenade with your teeth, and (2) popping the spoon and counting before you throw, to get an air burst.

Technical note: The spoon is the little lever that keeps the fuse from
igniting. It's spring-loaded, and held on with the pin. After you pull
the pin, while you're rearing back to throw, you hold the spoon down in
your fist.

You pull the pin and throw the grenade. The spoon flies off. The fuse
ignites. The grenade explodes. Marine Corps for "arrant" starts with an

The pin is what keeps the grenade from accidentally going off in your trousers. It does not just slide out. If you try to pull it out with your teeth, you'll loose a tooth. The fuse is designed to burn for the right time. If one of the recipients tries to pick it up and toss it back, he'll get blown up at closer range.

In battle, there's not a lot of time to think. People make mistakes and die.
They train you hard so that more things are automatic and you make fewer mistakes. Lance Corporal Shattuck pulled the pin on a grenade, cocked his arm, popped the spoon, and counted until it blew up next to his face.

He didn't die; it was a white phosphorus grenade. Maybe it would have been better if he had, I don't know. White phosphorus causes terrible burns and doesn't stop burning until you cut it out. A high-explosive grenade would have just blown his head, arm, neck, and shoulder to smithereens.

White phosphorus is awful. High explosives are awful. They're both made of chemicals. Bullets are made of the chemical "iron."

Conventions prohibiting chemical warfare prohibit nerve gas, mustard gas, and their kin. In the US, you'd need to find a living WWI vet to find someone who'd been attacked with chemical weapons. The conventions do not prohibit weapons made out of chemicals any more than prohibitions against biological warfare prohibit human Marines.

Terms like "chemical and biological weapons" have technical meanings and purposes, and aren't just coined to use in anti-military leaflets.

Yet discussions in the press echo junior-high-school nyah-nyahs: "He's a boy. He's your friend. He's your boyfriend!" grew up to be "White phosphorus is a chemical. You're using it in a weapon. You're using chemical weapons!"

Willful agitprop or woeful ignorance? Either way, it's reporters not straying out of their comfort zones. Call it comfort bias.

Reporters today seem no longer conversant with basic military matters. They're "milliterates."

They stick to body counts because they are, at least, at home with small integers. They report for Cindy Sheehan instead of Casey because they know all the words she uses but wouldn't have known the ones he did: she's a protest marcher, he was a soldier. They can spell "Bush lied" better than "Sergeant" or "ordnance."

Citizens of all stripes care about the war in Iraq but cannot get the basic education to have adult conversations about it. Not from Reuters, not from the AP, not from CBS, not from the New York Times.

Find me a non-stupid, front-page story about combat weapons and how we use them. No? How about strategy? Tactics? The services? How they're organized and why? Why military service is honorable and a duty and how you can join?

Who'd write them?

What reporters know a semi-automatic weapon from a machine gun, or a tank from an APC, or a mortar from a howitzer? Who's producing stories about our tactics and strategy in Iraq? About analogous wars, and what worked there, and what we're trying that's new, and why? About how much failure is normal in a successful war? Which editors know the difference between the Army and the Marines? between a non-commissioned and a commissioned officer? between a batallion and a brigade?

This isn't arcana ... it's basic stuff, folks.

You do not have to be "pro-war" to know it. You do have to know it to think intelligently about war, to hear and understand useful war news, to decide how a war is going and how it should be going.

In our country, we get to argue about things and vote on them. The role of a free press is independent voter education. For that to work, we need educated reporters, editors, and producers. Where are they?

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

These thoughts prompted by an analysis of the WP "story" by Jeff Goldstein that I particularly liked.

See, also, Confederate Yankee for more sane writing on that topic.


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