I don’t know whether to laugh or to cry. That was my reaction to reading yesterday’s New York Times article on the use of retired military officers to help generate favorable spin for the Bush administration’s performance. Evidently, the administration believes that with enough retired brass one can turn a lemon into lemonade.
The New York Times considered this issue to be important, as evidenced by the fact that the front page, above the fold, article ran over 7500 words. And it is, though not necessarily for the reason it thinks. In fact, the article is both less and more than one might think.
It is less because the fact is that retired generals and admirals have long been available for rent as ideological water boys. It has long been one of Washington’s worst kept secrets. Retired flag rank officers are like professional athletes. Once they are no longer fit for the playing field it is not as if they are fit for many other professions.
Aside from opening restaurants or bars a retired athlete generally gets a job somewhere in the sports industry. And once an officer is retired his or her career choices are similarly limited. Generally they find work somewhere within the expanses of the military industrial complex, which nowadays, goes far beyond industry. It also includes large parts of academia, and the think tank world. In the past they normally went to work for the normal hardware contractors, Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and the like. But with the rise of an always on media universe such officers have increasingly been used as the demand for so called ‘experts” has risen exponentially. If the Blackwaters and Dyncorps of the world can be considered Private Military Companies available for hire, such officers can be considered a different PMC; Private Media Contractors.
It is also less because the Pentagon has long sought to use the media in every possible way. The military has thought long and hard about this for over forty years, since the United States lost the Vietnam War. From helping Hollywood produce movies, to embedding reporters, and holding roundtables for bloggers, it has used every means available to help put its view forward.
The truth is that many of these retired “military analysts” are not particularly more qualified to report on the events of the day than the average think tank analyst. In many cases, it has been years, if not decades, since they were on active duty and much of their battlefield experience is as relevant and useful as the Maginot line was in defending France during WW II.
When one sees a retired Army general commenting on U.S. military airpower or a Navy admiral commenting on ground combat most people on active duty are busy rolling on the floor laughing hysterically. A retired squid commenting on the activities of grunts is taken as seriously as Paris Hilton commenting on foreign policy.
The article is more than people think because it is a sad commentary on the state of American unfamiliarity with military life and institutions that such people are granted credibility as real experts. Generally, when preparing for an interview with the television network that calls them up, they do the same thing any beat reporter would do; call someone at the Pentagon and ask a few questions. Their only comparative advantage is that their former rank enables them to get their calls returned a little sooner. But even if they get useful information the constraints of television are not going to allow them to present it. Thus, all they really have time for is to present dressed up sound bites disguised as profound military experience.
It is also sad that these retired officers are able to use their role as media consultants to help their employers. This is what the rest of us in the real world call a conflict of interest. Yes, it happens in all sorts of professions but consider that military officers are the ones who, more than most, are charged with maintaining bright ethical lines, while on active duty. Throughout their careers one of their prime imperatives is to avoid actions that seem to involve them in partisan politics.
To find that some of the were willing participants in efforts “to dupe the American public with propaganda dressed as independent military analysis” is confirmation of what many people have long known, i.e., that America’s officer corps, both retired, and, increasingly, active, is a highly politicized institution.
It is also worth noting that one only finds these officers spinning on television. Even in a dumbed down media world print media has its standards. As the Times noted:
Some network officials, meanwhile, acknowledged only a limited understanding of their analysts’ interactions with the administration. They said that while they were sensitive to potential conflicts of interest, they did not hold their analysts to the same ethical standards as their news employees regarding outside financial interests. The onus is on their analysts to disclose conflicts, they said.
That is why the New York Times, and not 60 Minutes or Nightline broke this story. That is another reason to be concerned about the troubled state of the print news industry, but that is not the subject of this post.
It is also sad that the media thinks retired officers have credibility on issues outside their professional expertise. The fact that these “military analysts” were used to counter the reality the U.S. runs a prison at Guantanamo where torture and lesser abuse has occurred, which is irreducibly a human rights, not a military, issue is evidence that these retired officers are being trotted for their usefulness as ventriloquist dummies, not for any useful analysis they provide.
It is also sad that many of these analysts “shared with Mr. Bush’s national security team a belief that pessimistic war coverage broke the nation’s will to win in Vietnam, and there was a mutual resolve not to let that happen with this war.” While it is true that the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq depends just as much on winning the hearts and minds of Americans as Iraqis, it is a myth that bad media coverage lost the Vietnam war. Although such a view was popularized by such books as Peter Braestrup’s 1977 Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington, not even the military believes that anymore.
Perhaps what is most dismaying of all is to find out how easy it is to co-opt a retired military officer, who may have spent decades living according to concepts of integrity and ethics, and turn him into a willing propagandist. All it takes evidently is stroking their ego:
In interviews, participants described a powerfully seductive environment — the uniformed escorts to Mr. Rumsfeld’s private conference room, the best government china laid out, the embossed name cards, the blizzard of PowerPoints, the solicitations of advice and counsel, the appeals to duty and country, the warm thank you notes from the secretary himself.
“Oh, you have no idea,” Mr. Allard said, describing the effect. “You’re back. They listen to you. They listen to what you say on TV.” It was, he said, “psyops on steroids” — a nuanced exercise in influence through flattery and proximity.