Monday, January 14, 2008

 

Anti-Military Propaganda

The New York Times on Sunday commenced a reporting series called “War Torn,” described as “A series of articles and multimedia about veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings, or been charged with them, after coming home.”

The Times starts War Torn with "Across America, Deadly Echoes of Foreign Battles," written by Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez, consisting of atypical anecdotes, seemingly contradicting data, and an absolute lack of statistical context.

One can only speculate on what the Times plans for future installments.

Several statistically informed and militarily knowledgeable bloggers have already criticized the Times for faulty reporting and even faultier data analysis techniques.

Phillip Carter of Intel Dump, no slacker as a critic of our efforts in Iraq, reached a one word conclusion about the Times piece: “bullsh*t.”

That’s at the end of a somewhat more elaborate criticism:

So, basically, the reporters went trolling on Lexis-Nexis and other databases to find "murder" within the same paragraph as "veteran" or "soldier," and built a front-page story around that research. They compared the pre-war numbers to the post-war numbers and found that, voila!, there's a difference. And then it looks like they cherry-picked the best anecdotes out of that research (including the ones where they could get interviews and photos) to craft a narrative which fit the data.
The article makes no attempt to produce a statistically valid comparison of homicide rates among vets to rates among the general population. Nor does it rely at all on Pentagon data about post-deployment incidents of violence among veterans. It basically just generalizes from this small sample (121 out of 1.7 million Iraq and Afghanistan vets, not including civilians and contractors) to conclude that today's generation of veterans are coming home full of rage and ready to kill.

Marc Danziger of Winds of Change documents how the lack of statistical context in the Times report evades some rather simple mathematical comparisons, and helpfully provides the email address of the Times Public Editor:

That means that the NY Times 121 murders represent about a 7.08/100,000 rate.

Now the numbers on deployed troops are probably high - fewer troops from 2001 - 2003; I'd love a better number if someone has it.

But for initial purposes, let's call the rate 10/100,000, about 40% higher than the calculated one.

Now, how does that compare with the population as a whole?

Turning to the DoJ statistics, we see that the US offender rate for homicide in the 18 - 24 yo range is 26.5/100,000.For 25 - 34, it's 13.5/100,000.

See the problem?

Damn, is it that hard for reporters and their editors to provide a little bit of context so we can make sense of the anecdotes? It's not in Part 1 of the article. And I'll bet it won't be in the future articles, either.

Because it's not part of the narrative of how our soldiers are either depraved or damaged.

The NY Times Public Editor can be reached at public@nytimes.com.

Danziger sparks a rather one-sided debate at Winds. There, Times apologists suggest that Danziger, Carter and other critics misrepresent what is intended as mere “anecdotal” reporting, and that the Times report is actually very sympathetic to soldiers experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other combat effects.

No doubt, in the same way the Times and others of their media ilk show sympathy for all other murders and malcontents who society has abused or neglected. Apparently, no one is responsible for their own bad behavior anywhere in Times World – unless you happen to be a member of the GOP that is.

But to address the notion that the Times report doesn’t make an argument that the Iraq War (uniquely) causes these soldiers to act out violently, consider the following.

Town by town across the country, headlines have been telling similar stories. Lakewood, Wash.: “Family Blames Iraq After Son Kills Wife.” Pierre, S.D.: “Soldier Charged With Murder Testifies About Postwar Stress.” Colorado Springs: “Iraq War Vets Suspected in Two Slayings, Crime Ring.”

Individually, these are stories of local crimes, gut-wrenching postscripts to the war for the military men, their victims and their communities. Taken together, they paint the patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon, tracing a cross-country trail of death and heartbreak.

The New York Times found 121 cases in which veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan committed a killing in this country, or were charged with one, after their return from war. In many of those cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage for a tragedy that was part destruction, part self-destruction.

Three-quarters of these veterans were still in the military at the time of the killing. More than half the killings involved guns, and the rest were stabbings, beatings, strangulations and bathtub drownings. Twenty-five offenders faced murder, manslaughter or homicide charges for fatal car crashes resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving.

“Town by town,” adding up to 121 cases nation wide? That’s town by town if you only count every 1,000th town or so, isn’t it? “Patchwork picture of a quiet phenomenon?” Aside from the triteness of either of the mixed metaphors, some patchwork where 1000 patches show no pattern whatever, but that 1,000 and first one, oh boy. Quiet, you could correctly call it. Darn near silent. “Cross-country trail of death and heartbreak?” That’s a vanishingly small number of trail markers on that trail, dwarfed by any mid-sized or larger town or city in America.

Note to the careful evasion in that third paragraph, about how “combat trauma and the stress of deployment — along with alcohol abuse, family discord and other attendant problems — appear to have set the stage” for the tragedies that the Times bemoans. So which is it, combat or substance or family or none of the above, which factor is most responsible? A combination? And do they “set the stage,” or only “appear to”? What kind of journalism is this? I thought the model was to describe facts, let the readers make value judgments.

And in that last paragraph, over 20% of the Times 121 cases are manslaughter or other charges stemming from fatal car crashes, “resulting from drunken, reckless or suicidal driving.” Talk about padding the numbers. How many of those cases involve alcohol or substance impaired driving – even if someone might consider such driving suicidal as well? How is this any different from the prevalence of such behavior among anyone in the age range of most of the soldiers involved? Doesn’t sound exclusive to military veterans, by a long shot.

And what about those “121 cases,” because that number won’t square up with numbers reported later in the article:

The Times used the same methods to research homicides involving all active-duty military personnel and new veterans for the six years before and after the present wartime period began with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

This showed an 89 percent increase during the present wartime period, to 349 cases from 184, about three-quarters of which involved Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

By my calculation, 75% of 349 would come to 262, not 121. Go figure, the Times doesn’t do math very well.

Admittedly much of the Times report is unscientific, statistically distorted based on research methods, and entirely based on the collection of anecdotal evidence. This can be a valid means of reporting, at least on background. As the blunt objects wielded by the Times in this piece, however, it distorts whatever reality it presents.

When reporting by anecdote or personal account, some effort to make sure the selected anecdotes are “representative” would kind of help the reporting avoid bias, one-sided advocacy, or distortion to the point of falsehood. Yet, the editors at the Times exhibit no such caution when it comes to formulating the narrative they seek to advance, and each anecdote is presented as object lesson that military service in Iraq causes the mental imbalances that lead to violence.

This, despite numerous clues in several of the selected stores that suggest the violence has little to do with any combat effects, and would as likely have happened even absent the suggest “causation” of combat service.

The first story, chronicling how a 20 year old soldier responded to imminent threat from a couple of gangbangers in a war zone section of Las Vegas, killing one, wounding another, and seeming to “flashback” to his combat experiences.

As written by the Times, there can be no question of what the reporters want to convey: that of a walking time bomb. Of course, he’s also uneducated, underemployed, suffering from substance abuse. Allowed to join the Military at 16 by his parents. He resists the military’s programs to treat his addictions, and feels he can’t “admit” PTSD. He quits the military. Obviously tracked or in trouble with somebody, the young man sees an alcohol counselor, although the Times doesn’t mention where the soldier gets that help from. The counselor advises the man to go see the VA, but he’s too busy.

Not until he gets arrested does it come out that he suffers from memories about a “bad kill.” Charges were eventually dropped in exchange for “successful completion of treatment for substance abuse and PTSD.” Pretty good outcome, for him. Unremarked in the Times piece is how many ways the military, fellow Vets, or others rallied around the young soldier.

Up to 15 or more of these killings sound a lot more like suicides, paired with the killing of another, or suicide by cop. Not to diminish these events, but suicide is a different kind of behavior than killing somebody else. Who knows which motivated which.

Another Times example suggests even more questionable assumptions about causation. A Marine Gunnery Sergeant killed his mistress when she threatened to kill his family during his next deployment. His wife blames his prior deployment, and his Marine lawyer blames PTSD.

I don’t know the record, but I’m thinking that the fact that he was having an affair with a mentally unbalanced mistress might have contributed as to cause, with his decision to off the girlfriend and claim PTSD as his defense. Helpfully, his wife backs up his claim. Who knows? If he’d offed his wife, maybe the mistress would have done him the same favor.

Time selects as another poster soldier for PTSD murderers the case of a Vet sentenced to prison for killing, who dismissed post-deployment screening surveys, has shown no remorse nor offered apology to his victim’s family, and who the sentencing judge privy to the evidence described as a bully. This guy discounts his own PTSD diagnosis, offered by a defense-paid psychologist:

After his arrest, a psychologist hired by his family diagnosed combat trauma in Mr. Strasburg, writing in an evaluation that post-traumatic stress disorder, exacerbated by alcohol, served as a “major factor” in the shooting.

Yeah, no doubt. Is there a lawyer out there who wouldn’t offer this defense for a combat vet charged with murder? Seriously, it’s a no brainer, isn’t it?

And then there’s this quote from the vet:

Mr. Strasburg also voiced reluctance to being publicly identified as a PTSD sufferer, worried that his former military colleagues would see him as a weakling. “Nobody wants to be that guy who says, ‘I got counseling this afternoon, Sergeant,’ ” he said, mimicking a whining voice.

So we want to think that the Army is more responsible for a jerk that no doubt entered service as a jerk, and stayed that way.

The last poster boy the Times presents was an ether addict, who ended up juiced up on ether when he killed and injured driving the wrong way on a highway. Admittedly, the military is being sued for victims for negligence, perhaps more so on the basis that the military authorities released into his possession his impounded car with Marine ether canisters left in the car, rather than negligence in trying to treat his addiction.

The Times latest foray into anti-military propaganda is nothing new. Per their own links, here’s some of their “past (related) coverage:”

Surge in Number of Homeless Veterans Is Anticipated (November 8, 2007)

Not a Game: Simulation To Lessen War Trauma (August 28, 2007)

Bush Panel Seeks To Upgrade Care Of Wounded G.I.'s (July 26, 2007)

Fighting the Terror Of Battles That Rage In Soldiers' Heads (May 13, 2007)

Several prominent bloggers have also picked up on story, including Glenn Reynolds here and here, and Powerline.        

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