The Commandant Didn’t Say What Everyone Says He Said
My latest for War on the Rocks, “Don’t Believe Everything You Read in the Papers,” has posted. The intro:
Many of us have experienced occasions where we’ve read about an event in which we were a participant — either as a direct actor or merely an observer — and found ourselves perplexed by the written account. Whether because of an ideological agenda, an inadequate understanding of the topic, or — more commonly — a desire for a juicy headline and a scandal, reporters frequently misrepresent what transpired or was said. Paradoxically, however, we instinctively treat reports about events where we were not present as gospel.
Recently, a collaborator and I fell into this trap. A series of venues reported some remarks by General Jim Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, which seemingly questioned the president’s leadership on issues of international security, blamed the current crisis in Iraq on his fecklessness, and strongly implied that the president had betrayed the sacrifices of American warriors who had died there. As strong advocates for civilian control of the military, we submitted a blistering piece to War on the Rocks outlining the proper limitations for general officers publicly speaking on matters of policy, explaining the rationale for those limitations, and ending with Amos standing at attention in the Oval Office being reminded of his place in the chain of command. It was right on all counts — except for the not so minor detail that Amos hadn’t done what we were criticizing him for doing.
The rest examines what was reported and compares it to what Amos actually said. The bottom line is that, while the quotes were more or less right, the context in the initial reports was wrong and further reports and analyses distorted the speech further.
Given that I was saved from adding to the noise only by an unusually diligent editor—few bother to so much as click the supplied links, much less go beyond that—I’m not about to accuse Ollie North and others who have seized upon Amos’ remarks for their own agenda of dishonesty. It’s far too easy to assume that reports in reputable publications are accurate and not go further. Brookings had the video of Amos’ speech up before most of the reporting went out but, at well over an hour, I didn’t watch it and, in the absence of a transcript—which I would indeed have read had it been available at the time of my initial writing—I just took the press accounts and ran with them. It’s quite probable that North and others did the same thing.
What will be interesting to see is whether, now that my piece is out there—and Brookings has an uncorrected transcript posted—the narrative will be corrected. My strong suspicion, alas, is that it won’t.