A Tale of Two Op-Eds

Steve Benen laments that the recent op-ed by Michael O’Hanlon and Ken Pollack got so much attention while the one by seven junior enlisted veterans of the war has, in the words of Greg Sargent, “been met with near-total silence.”

In terms of blog coverage, at least, that’s not the case. The latter op-ed, published just two days ago, has already garnered 638 citations on Technorati compared to 1,287 for the three-week-old piece.

Since there isn’t a similar metric I’m aware of for readily comparing mainstream press coverage, let’s grant for the sake of discussion that the premise that it generated less discussion than its predecessor on television and the big media outlets.

Benen’s hypothesis that “seven U.S. troops challenging the conventional wisdom with a perspective that bolsters the Democratic perspective just isn’t newsworthy,” seems wildly implausible. For one thing, that we’re losing in Iraq is the conventional wisdom and has been for more than a year. For another, the press loves stories about Republicans opposing the war, veterans groups opposing the war, retired generals opposing the war, and pretty much anyone else opposing the war.

The simplest alternative explanation, it seems to me, is that two scholars from the prestigious Brookings Institution proclaiming something that goes contrary to the conventional wisdom is more newsworthy than seven junior enlisted men writing about grand strategy. The MSM places a lot of value on Ivy League degrees, after all. On paper, at least, O’Hanlon and Pollack are gen-yoo-wine experts while the seven snuffies were dealing with matters light years above their pay grade. On the other hand, if they’d written that morale among the troops was abysmal, rather than the opposite, I suspect they’d have gotten plenty of attention.

This credentialism isn’t entirely misplaced. Lawrence Korb is right when he says, “[P]ay attention to the enlisted people. The officers — and I was an officer and I went through Vietnam — would always try to put out a rosy scenario to please the political masses.” The guys at the tip of the spear have a unique perspective that’s worth paying attention to and the officers, especially above company grade, have a tendency to cheer-lead. Still, you don’t get much of a sense of the strategic picture from a foxhole.

Another possible explanation — and these aren’t mutually exclusive — is that the news cycle was more kind to O’Hanlon and Pollack than to Buddhika Jayama and company. The Sunday talk shows were wall-to-wall Karl Rove and since then it’s been all Hurricane Dean. The media, especially television, is in the business of attracting eyeballs. Maybe the second op-ed simply got buried by sexier news.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, Media, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. legion says:

    For one thing, that we’re losing in Iraq is the conventional wisdom and has been for more than a year.

    If that were actually true, James, we’d be in the process of bringing troops home now, or at least working on a better strategy than ‘SUUUUURGE’, or even waiting on a dog-and-pony show report whose only element of suspense will be in just how well it claims the surge is working.

    For another, the press loves stories about Republicans opposing the war, veterans groups opposing the war, retired generals opposing the war, and pretty much anyone else opposing the war.

    And if _that_ were true, this discussion wouldn’t be taking place at all – ‘going against the grain’ stories generally sell in the short term, but the MSM’s unquestioning repetition of unsubstantiated & easily debunked pro-war propaganda is far more commonplace than op-eds like that of the soldiers….

  2. James Joyner says:

    If that were actually true, James, we’d be in the process of bringing troops home now

    Well, no. The polls show the public wants out of Iraq and probably a majority in Congress does, too. How to make that happen is still debatable. Further, the CW has to contend with the reality of a president who wants to push ahead backed by a strong minority in the Senate that can filibuster.

    MSM’s unquestioning repetition of unsubstantiated & easily debunked pro-war propaganda is far more commonplace than op-eds like that of the soldiers..

    Oh, c’mon. The press gives much more attention to the Cindy Sheehans and Jack Murthas than to comparably placed war supporters.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m not sure what the prevailing wisdom is any more. Not one of the first-tier presidential aspirants of either party is advocating complete withdrawal from Iraq in the foreseeable future although a number of those in Congress are speaking as though that were the objective. It seems there’s a difference of opinion.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Not one of the first-tier presidential aspirants of either party is advocating complete withdrawal from Iraq in the foreseeable future although a number of those in Congress are speaking as though that were the objective. It seems there’s a difference of opinion.

    I think it’s a difference of perspective. A future president has to think a little more about logistics than a Member of Congress. The latter act as if waving a magic wand could make it so.

  5. tom panian says:

    “light years above their pay grade”??? How condescending, and one of the STUPDIST things I have ever heard uttered by an otherwise intelligent human being.

    I am a union carpenter, charged with building things “light years above my pay grade” by architects and engineers who DON’T know there a***s from the hole in the ground I am swimming in. You know what we call a set of blue prints?

    “Funny papers”. Which is exactly what O’Hanlon and Pollack produced.I will trust the guys who sweat and bleed over those who sit in their Ivory towers any day. Why? They have a little more invested in it… Their lives.

    tap

  6. Dale says:

    While I have no doubt that the 7 soldiers from the 82d Airborne wrote the OP-ED based upon their experience in Iraq. I’m equally sure that they’re jumping WAY out of their paygrade when professing their opinions on whether or not the plan in Iraq writ-large is or is not working.

    I say this as an active duty Marine Master Sergeant with almost 19 years in now.

    Staff Sergeants and Sergeants do not have the ability see what is going on in say Anbar, Basra, Diyala or Mosul when they are patrolling Baghdad. At best they are basing their opinions regarding strategy on media accounts at worst the opinions are based on rumors passed on by military personnel from other units. SSgt’s and Sgt’s are infantry squad leaders and or squad members or platoon sergeants. As such they are worried about what is going on in their specific area of responsibility (probably no bigger than a square that is a few blocks long by a few blocks wide – maybe bigger but not by much) and the area of responsibility for the next higher headquarters (their company).

    TAP: What James is saying about the soldiers is not condescending, that is just the way it is with enlisted personnel in the armed forces. For that matter that is the way it is for almost all personnel (officer and enlisted) below the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. You just don’t have the broad visibility of the situation until you get up that high in rank. Until then you worry about the targets that are closest to your fighting hole.

    Dale

  7. Anthony C says:

    “I will trust the guys who sweat and bleed over those who sit in their Ivory towers any day. Why? They have a little more invested in it… Their lives.”

    There’s undoubtedly a fair bit of merit in this, but I think it’s fair to note that first of all one of the problems with this is that advocates on both sides of the fence tend to treat the soldiery as though it is an homogenous mass, when it isn’t. The article by the soldiers may or may not have merit, but the reality is that it would be easy to rustle up another bunch of soldiers who would tell s completely different story. Similarly when you get these articles in places like The Weekly Standard going “The troops think we’re winning”. Well from my own experience of US servicemen (admittedly all officers) I can say pretty safely that there’s no such thing as “The Troops” when it comes to judgements like that.

    Second of all, while it’s true that to talk about squaddies making judgements “above their pay grade” is pretty patronising and while views expressed by people low down the chain are valuable and should not simply be dismissed on the basis that they don’t get the higher levels of strategy, the truth of the matter is that history – especially the history of counterinsurgency – is full of instances of armies losing campaigns that their average fighting men think are going just dandy. The reason this is doubly true in a COIN situation is that the further down the line you go the more the focus is likely to be on tactical encounters and in COIN a consistent string of tactical victories can simultaneously be a consistent string of strategic defeats.

  8. legion says:

    The polls show the public wants out of Iraq and probably a majority in Congress does, too. How to make that happen is still debatable.

    The answer is to get Bush out of office. All the debate in the world won’t change his mind – he’s pathologically fixated on this, and I don’t think he’s physically capable of changing course anymore.

    Oh, c’mon. The press gives much more attention to the Cindy Sheehans and Jack Murthas than to comparably placed war supporters.

    Depends on your definition of ‘attention’. Every week, there’s some new voice complaining about the war, but each one gets, at best, neutral treatment. But the counter arguments, no matter how obviously made up out of whole cloth or manipulated by propaganda (e.g., the O’Hanlon & Pollack op-ed), the pro-war items _always_ get reported as given & assumed to be factual.

  9. tom panian says:

    Dale: Must most respectfully disagree.

    First: (correct me if I am wrong)… the difference between tactics and strategy (in laymans terms)is that tactics define how to win a battle, strategy defines how to win a war. No soldier can tell if a battle is being won or lost (in the heat of the moment) though Gens Cols. and Majs have a better idea than the grunt getting shot at because they have a better overall view (communications from all over the “battlefield”). The grunt only knows he is getting shot at, and quite often doesn’t even know where the bullets are coming from. BUT…

    While:

    Staff Sergeants and Sergeants do not have the ability see what is going on in say Anbar, Basra, Diyala or Mosul when they are patrolling Baghdad.

    is quite true,

    They are very well aware (especially after spending 15 months there) whether the strategy is working…. in their “theatre of operations”. AND if they don’t see any improvement, they are FAR more qualified to say so than two “talkingheads” who have been “in country” for 8 days.

    Speaking as an expert in tactics (the aforementioned union carpenter) even I can tell when the strategy is BULL***T when, for the 3rd time, I have to tear down what I have built because those in charge of “strategy” don’t know what they are doing.

    It was a condesceding comment. (sorry James, but I gotta call you on that one)

    tap

  10. tom panian says:

    Anthony C:

    A couple of points. To start with, I never intimated which way I was leaning on this war (indeed, I still haven’t). All I said was that a couple of talking heads have very little to say to me after 8 days in country as opposed to 6(?) guys who have been there 15 months.

    By the by… you read the undertones of my post quite correctly… I am ADAMENTLY opposed to this war.

    While I agree with you that it is fair to…

    note that first of all one of the problems with this is that advocates on both sides of the fence tend to treat the soldiery as though it is an homogenous mass

    it is something I refuse to do (I have read too many posts from those who are there, and more than a few disagree with me)and while I have to agree that there is a certain amount of truth in saying,

    the truth of the matter is that history – especially the history of counterinsurgency – is full of instances of armies losing campaigns that their average fighting men think are going just dandy.

    I must point out a couple of notable exceptions: Vietnam being the easy one, Algieria another. In both cases, men on the ground knew it was not working, LONG before the Generals did.

    As for…

    The reason this is doubly true in a COIN situation is that the further down the line you go the more the focus is likely to be on tactical encounters and in COIN a consistent string of tactical victories can simultaneously be a consistent string of strategic defeats.

    I can only say that I lived through the Vietnam years, and the Generals were far more guilty of this than were the grunts.

    Disclaimer: I have a (somewhat)personal stake in this. I have 2 sons, ages 18 and 21. I have watched the fathers of sons in Iraq (I work with these guys) as they tried to deal with thier fears… and felt (in some small part) those same fears. What is more, my sons buried a friend of their’s this past June… Jimmy Summers died far too young (IED, Baghdad, on a rescue mission, killed Memorial Day) I knew this boy.

    For what did he die for? His comrades? His “Brother’s in Arms”??? Yes. That is all. Not to spread “democracy and freedom” all over this world. So please, to all (not to you in particular, Anthony, just that that is the continued “talking points” we get) do not put larger motives than this on these men and women. Most of them are there (at this point) because there “buddies” are… No more, no less.

    tom