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When Military News is Skewed, Reliable Statistics Become Crucial. Where are they?

“We just help the military figure out what embed is right for a particular reporter. If a reporter is classified as ‘negative’ they are less likely to go where the action is and more likely to be covering a platoon that guards sandbags in Herat.” — employee, The Rendon Group

Neutralized Journalists lead to a Neutralized Public

Last week, we read the revelation that the U.S. military has been profiling journalists and engaging in programs to “neutralize” the work of reporters it deems negative. Of course, the military denied any such thing was going on until it was caught red-handed, and now it’s engaged in an after the fact cover-up. Now that the operation is public, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith has declared that Rendon’s contract will be terminated because “it was clear that the issue of Rendon’s support to US forces in Afghanistan had become a distraction from our main mission.” Well, that’s what the military says. But the military also insisted that the profiling program never existed. How do we know that the program will be shut down? How do we know that it isn’t being continued in some other unit under some other name? How do we know that journalists’ work isn’t being tampered with in other ways?

The answer is that we don’t know and, worse, that we cannot know. When the U.S. military lies and covers up operations that skew the work of journalists, we can’t trust the military’s insistence that such efforts are all done with now. We cannot know that the new claims aren’t just more lies.

The problem isn’t just a military one. When journalists are given their “embedded” reporting assignments by the military on the basis of the conclusions those journalists tend to draw — “positive” journalists going where “where the action is,” “negative” journalists “covering a platoon that guards sandbags in Herat” — then the reporting on the course of the wars becomes skewed, too. Thanks to the military operation, we can’t trust journalists’ reporting that the war in Iraq or the war in Afghanistan is “rebounding,” or “turning a corner,” or any other such positive metaphor.

There are two ways we can respond to our ignorant and ill-informed position as citizens. One response is to toss our hands in the air, accept our ignorance, conclude that we can’t worry our pretty little heads none, and go on about our domestic business, leaving the wars to the generals who make their names by fighting wars. The other response is to demand independent, reliable, verifiable information. In the longer term, this means changing the structure of war journalism to end “embedding” and to allow journalists to see the conduct of American war as they did before. In the shorter term, this means getting our hands on as much good information as possible.

Statistics Are Not Enough

Simply looking at statistics won’t be enough. NATO commander Stanley McChrystal reports that since he took command in June, NATO-caused civilian casualties have “plummeted more than 80%,” and that “civilian casualties caused by the Taliban had increased about 20% during the same period.” That sounds like a good trend for NATO and nefarious trend for the Taliban. But we have to keep in mind not only that this is a military report from an effort in which the military has been demonstrably deceptive, but also that the statistics released are selectively released. Read the news article generated from the military release and you’ll find out that the statistics NATO released are “classified,” but that this particular information from the broader set of statistics was declassified, released by NATO as part of its campaign in which “it is their (Afghans’) fears, frustrations and expectations that we must address.” The full set of statistics describing civilian casualties over the entire period of their collection has not been released. It remains classified. The only data declassified are two data points showing an 80% drop between them. The broader historical trend in civilian casualties could look like any of these:

What's the broader historical trend in NATO-caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan, beyond the selectively declassified data?

Without the full set of statistics to get a thorough picture of trends in civilian deaths, it’s not possible to get a useful account from which to draw conclusions. We’re just left with the suggestion of a big drop and the hope that we drop our inquiries from that point on. But for those who don’t want to just shrug their shoulders and walk away, comfortable in ignorance, inquiries must continue. Here’s are questions I’d like to see asked (and answered) at the next NATO news conference on Afghanistan: why were these two data points classified in the first place? What made those pieces of information worth classifying? And what changed to make those two data points safe to declassify? Why have the other data points in this trend line continued to be classified? Is information classified if it’s bad news but declassified if it’s good news?

I don’t have the press credentials to appear at a news conference and ask those questions, but I hope someone with privileged credentials has the nerve and the inclination to ask them.

In the meantime, as a curious citizen and as someone who wants to help other curious citizens, I need your help. Do you know of any declassified, complete statistical information on the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, information that would help citizens like you and me get good look at the progress of this war? If you are aware of any such information, please let me (and other curious readers) know where we can find it by leaving a comment below. Thanks.

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