Oct 15

(To check out other “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, please click here.)

Before last month’s “On V Update to Old Ideas” post, we hadn’t run one in months, but we’ve been collecting links the whole time. Prepare for a bunch of updates, sorted by theme. Today’s theme? Money.

We Don’t Need a Sequester to Waste Money

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel warned that if the sequester went through, it would force the military to implement blunt budget cuts, which would waste money and (hypothetically) harm our soldiers in the future. (The go-to argument for anyone defending the military.) He neglected to mention that the Pentagon routinely makes terrible financial decisions. For instance...

...the Army is now literally junking the mine resistant vehicles that it spent billions shipping to Afghanistan instead of shipping them home.   

...the Army is constructing a headquarters building in Afghanistan, costing millions per month, which it plans to leave vacant.

...as it prepares to leave Afghanistan, an Inspector General report found billions of dollars in waste in only three months.

...Air Force officer Dan Ward writes that military contracting is so poorly managed, we don’t even know how bad we are at it.

When the military does contracting this bad, no one wins. Oh, except for defense contractors. They make lots of money. To fix the system, one assumes we need strong civilian leadership to rein in Generals and Admirals. Unfortunately, President Obama nominated military industry executive Deborah Lee James as Secretary of the Air Force. The revolving door between government and contractors continues to spin.

It also turns out that defense spending doesn’t provide the economic benefits many claim. Blogger, professor and zombie aficionado Dan Drezner has a new paper that debunks the idea that American military spending provides economic benefits to the world or America.

And that go-to-defense of military spending, “that it will hurt our men and women in uniform”? Friend of the blog Sven Ortmann delivers a marvelous pieces combining economics and military budgeting which debunks that notion completely. He asks, "How much should the U.S. spend to keep its soldiers safe?" and comes up with a number. For all the economists out there (or conservatives who claim to follow economics), you have to read this.

Contracting Money Influences the Debate

Since the NSA debate has triggered a lot of journalist-on-journalist attacks, we have avoided taking sides or commenting. (If our readers want to know our takes, wait until January...) However, we absolutely agree with Glenn Greenwald when he nailed the press--particularly Face the Nation--for not disclosing the financial self-interest of many pro-NSA commentators to its viewers, like General Michael Hayden, former director of the NSA under President Bush. From Greenwald:

“But worse than the omission of Hayden's NSA history is his current - and almost always unmentioned - financial stake in the very policies he is being invited to defend. Hayden is a partner in the Chertoff Group, a private entity that makes more and more money by increasing the fear levels of the US public and engineering massive government security contracts for their clients. Founded by former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, it's filled with former national security state officials who exploit their connections in and knowledge of Washington to secure hugely profitable government contracts for their clients."

As we wrote in our coverage of Zero Dark Thirty and Argo, many government officials exaggerate the threat of terrorism. While they sincerely believe in their work, they also have financial interests to do so.

An Update to Doing Aid Right

While this article on “The Matador Network” seems like a Reddit link bait scam, it accurately explains why dropping bombs of free t-shirts and shoes (as TOMS does) is terrible aid policy. The best part about the TOMS story is that I swear my entire business school loves TOMS. Literally, business school students take economics in one class, then give a presentation during communications advocating the TOMS model.

I, (Michael C), say this criticism as a solid moderate. I just think we should do aid/government/business efficiently and effectively. While business has built-in mechanisms for that, aid and government don't. The podcast Tiny Spark had done great work critiquing foreign aid, with a recent episode on Jeffrey Sachs’ Millenium Villages. I’ve advocated before for renewed U.S. foreign aid spending. I still want that, but our government must do it right, using controlled experiments, analyzing data and spreading it liberally.   

Why Does the U.S. Keeps Sending Weapons to Egypt?

Because of defense contractors.

Before Syria replaced Egypt in the news, there was a lot of discussion about U.S. aid to that specific country. For a primer and explanation on why that aid doesn’t make a lot of sense--because most of the money spent on Egypt goes to American defense contractors--listen to this excellent Planet Money episode, then shake your head.

Oct 08

For 42% of Americans, Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction when America invaded. They believe this because, after invading Iraq, the U.S. did indeed fail to find weapons of mass destruction. (Another 25% have no idea.)

The other 30% or so? Why do they still think Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction? Mostly, because they watch Fox News. They might, however, also read war memoirs by or about Navy SEALs.

A while back, Michael C found this tidbit in an article on Wired’s “Dangerroom” blog about the politics in Chuck Pfarrer’s non-fiction account of SEAL Team 6.   

“Author Chuck Pfarrer is taking flack over his account of the Osama bin Laden raid in his new revisionist history, SEAL Target Geronimo. But that’s overshadowed another big problem with the book: Pfarrer’s claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction are absolutely bananas.

"To read SEAL Target Geronimo is to get sucked into a vortex of WMD insanity. Pfarrer says that Saddam Hussein had dangerous, active chemical, biological and nuclear programs up until the day of his downfall. Worse, those weapons made it into the hands of Osama himself. Why didn’t you know about it? Because craven politicians and the lying media hid the truth about what U.S. military weapons experts uncovered.”

Unfortunately, I’m not shocked. Why? Because this would only be the second book I’ve read by a Navy SEAL that makes this ridiculous claim. Yeah, I’m talking about Lone Survivor. Here’s what Luttrell and Patrick Robinson actually wrote about WMDs and Iraq:

“You may remember the CIA believed they had uncovered critical evidence from the satellite pictures of those enormous government trucks rolling along Iraq’s highways: four of them, usually in convoy, and all big enough to house two centrifuges. The accepted opinion was that Saddam had a mobile spinning program which could not easily be found, and in fact could be either lost and buried in the desert or alternatively driven across the border into Syria or even Jordan.

“Well, we found those trucks, hidden in the desert, parked together. But the inside of each one had been roughly gutted. There was nothing left. We saw the trucks, and in my opinion someone had removed whatever they had contained, and in a very great hurry.

“I also saw the al Qaeda training camp north of Baghdad. That had been abandoned, but it was stark evidence of the strong links between the Iraqi dictator and Osama bin Laden’s would-be warriors. Traces of the camp’s military purpose were all around. Some of the guys who had been in Afghanistan said it was just about a direct replica of the camp the United States destroyed after 9/11.”

When the movie comes out and people ask us, “Well, how bad is Lone Survivor actually?” I’ll respond, “Read this passage.” Luttrell not only argues that Saddam had WMDs, he argues that Iraq harbored Al Qaeda terror camps, which is so insane and so factually wrong words fail me. This is why we find Lone Survivor so distasteful.

So that’s it. Only two SEAL memoirs describe WMDs in Iraq...wait, what another memoir by a Navy SEAL repeats this claim? This example comes from American Sniper by Chris Kyle. (It’s also being turned into film.)

“At another location, we found barrels of chemical material that was intended for use as biochemical weapons. Everyone talks about there being no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but they seem to be referring to completed nuclear bombs, not the many deadly chemical weapons or precursors that Saddam had stockpiled.

“Maybe the reason is that the writing on the barrels showed that the chemicals came from France and Germany, our supposed Western allies.

“The thing I always wonder about is how much Saddam was able to hide before we actually invaded. We’d given so much warning before we came in, that he surely had time to move and bury tons of material. Where it went, where it will turn up, what it will poison —I think those are pretty good questions that have never been answered."

Here’s another example, not as egregious, but still wrong, also from a book about Navy SEAL Lieutenant Patrick Murphy, SEAL of Honor.

“Saddam Hussein remained a threat for his refusal to allow international weapons inspectors to account for his known inventory of known chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction...”

If you have to repeat the word known twice in one sentence, that thing is probably not known.

Finally, from the book Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Behm

“And in Iraq Adam remembered this photo of a Kurdish girl lying dead on the street, eyes open, after Saddam Hussein had gassed her whole town. All this argument about whether or not they had weapons of mass destruction--that was proof enough for Adam that they not only had them but that Saddam Hussein had used them against his own people.”

In conclusion, that’s five memoirs or non-fiction books--all about SEALs--by five different authors who all repeat the same, patently wrong information. I searched about 11 books or memoirs from Navy SEALs to research this post. About half of them repeated this patently false claim. Wow.

Don’t think that this has an effect? In an old post from My Pet Jawa (we'd link to it, but the site now redirects to an ad), the author writes, about Luttrell’s claims, “Maybe the libs should just try calling him a delusional chickenhawk warmonger who had no idea what he saw with his own two eyes.”

That’s my fear. When Lone Survivor and American Sniper open in box offices around the country, people will go out and buy these books. They’ll read passages like the ones above and say, “Huh. Saddam did have WMDs.”

And that’s how society remains misinformed.

Oct 01

(To read the entire "COIN is Boring” series, please click here.)

As I writer, I think about mediums. Not psychics, but art mediums, wondering which ones will survive into the future. I ask myself, “If someone wants to write something that will affect the most people, what should they write?” In the 1300s, great writers wrote epic poetry. In the 1600s, plays. In the 1800s through the middle of the 2000s, novels.

In the 1950s, film became the most important art medium in the modern world. More people see films than read novels. More importantly, more people respect films than respect novels. I could discuss The Godfather or Pulp Fiction with almost anyone; good luck finding someone who’s actually read DeLillo’s Underworld. Few novels change the world these days. A few films do just that every year. (As far as other modern mediums go, TV came into its own in the early 2000s and video games are far, far too immature in content to even consider them.)

Which brings me to the series we’ve been writing for four weeks now: how do films handle counter-insurgency?

Not terribly well.

How do I know? Because we’ve already written about how Hollywood ignores counter insurgencies. In “The "Battle Mentality" of Hollywood”, we describe Hollywood’s focus on the “decisive battle”, using Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and the most recent Alice in Wonderland remake as examples:

“Movies are only two hours long. With the occasional exception, a film can only depict a single battle, or a handful of battles, never the war. Also, the three act structure of Hollywood scripts--ingrained in the minds of Hollywood executives--does not have much flexibility. Executives, screenwriters and directors must deliver a climax, and the decisive battle is a tremendous climax.”

Most insurgencies last decades; most films--chronologically--last a couple of days. Insurgencies rise and fall on the success of dozens of groups and actors; a film can only follow a few individuals. Counter-insurgencies most often end with a whimper (for example, the Iraq War); Hollywood films end with a bang. It’s why Return of the Jedi chronicled the final climactic destruction of the Empire while ignoring the Ewok insurgency that raged for years on the forest moon of Endor.

Which doesn’t mean there are no films about counter-insurgency. The guys at Kings of War made a fine list a few years ago, but take another look at their selections. Those films aren’t popular. And some of the movies--Spartacus, Full Metal Jacket--are technically about insurgencies, but not really about coalition building or coercing populations. And yes, The Battle for Algiers and Lawrence of Arabia depicted counter-insurgency masterfully, but how many Americans have actually seen those movies?

You could argue that Hollywood made a whole bunch of cinematically great, popular films about the Vietnam War--which was an insurgency--like Platoon, Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket, We Were Soldiers, and arguably Apocalypse Now (It’s a great film; I just don’t think it’s really about Vietnam.)

But those Vietnam war films perfectly illustrate what I’m talking about. First, most of those films depicted the experiences of soldiers, not the Vietnamese. Second, America stopped making Vietnam War films.

That’s right. Hollywood no longer cares about Vietnam. The last two major films about Vietnam were We Were Soldiers, released in 2002, and Rescue Dawn, released in 2006. World War II has so many films still being made about it, Wikipedia divides the article up by decade. George Clooney and Matt Damon have another WWII movie coming out this winter.

The absolute failure of most post-9/11 war movies proves the case. After wave and wave of failure, even the most successful film about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, The Hurt Locker (net box office gross: less than $50 million) suffered at the box office...and it didn’t really cover counterinsurgency. Sure, filmmakers will someday make films--good, successful, accurate films--about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; I doubt they’ll cover counterinsurgency. They won’t have the time. (Lone Survivor touches on some of those issues, but I think you know how we feel about that.)

And like the Vietnam war, we won’t be making films about either war in forty years.

I wouldn’t make a film about an insurgency either. If Michael C and I had the opportunity, we’d make a film about Afghanistan, but it would depict a battle. Films can depict battles, not wars. The complexity of counter insurgency--virtually every insurgency--just can’t be covered in a two hour film. I’m not blaming Hollywood; I’m blaming the medium.

Sep 26

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.

To check out other “On V Updates to Old Ideas”, please click here.)

On Tuesday, I wrote a glowing review of The Invisible War, the Oscar-nominated documentary on sexual assault in the military. It’s one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

Since I’ve been following this issue for years now, I want to share some updates on the topic in general. More specifically, I want to respond to the biggest mainstream criticism I have read…

Rosa Brooks Doesn’t Think Sexual Assault is a Problem in the Military

More precisely, she doesn’t think it’s a greater problem than rape in the civilian world. As Rosa Brooks writes in Foreign Policy...

“Sexual assault in the military is a genuine and serious problem, but the frantic rhetoric may be doing more harm than good. It conceals the progress the military has made in developing effective sexual assault prevention and response programs, and it distracts us from the even higher rates of sexual violence in comparable civilian populations.”

While we admire Rose Brooks, this article has several significant problems. First, I don’t think the military has made progress addressing sexual assault, unless Rosa Brooks is referring to the last six months or so, which seems odd (and unlikely). As NPR and The Invisible War point out, in 2011, only 96 reported cases of sexual assault went to court-martial. For some anecdotal evidence, it took over a year for the Navy to bring charges against three Naval Academy football players. (Don’t worry, the Academy charged the victim with drunkenness in “no time at all” in the words of The New York Times.) Situations like this just don’t occur in the civilian world--at least the victims don’t get charged with crimes before their attackers.

Mainly, though, I don’t agree with Brooks’ numbers. Check out the numbers in this article, this article and the Wikipedia page on the issue, then compare them to her numbers. Fifteen percent of female veterans who return from war zones have experienced “military sexual trauma”. (More on this phrase later in this post.) That number is way higher than annual civilian sexual assault rates.

My explanation for the difference is that Rosa Brooks mixed lifetime rape statistics with yearly rates in the military. A recent article in The New Yorker on the Steubenville rape case cited the CDC’s estimate that 20% of all women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes. Based on the numbers I cited above, that’s the about the same rate for women in the military...except military careers don’t last a lifetime.

I would also flip this issue on its head: if civilian sexual assault rates are the same as the military, then America has a rape problem. It still needs to be addressed.

Actually, Read That New Yorker Article

Because it is fantastic. Ariel Levy fairly depicts both sides of the Stuebenville rape case, telling a complex and difficult narrative different than most of the breathless cable coverage of this story.   

A Legitimate Criticism of The Invisible War

One of the best criticisms I found of The Invisible War was that it didn’t focus enough on male-on-male rape in the US military. Though the film featured one victim of male sexual assault, clearly the film focused on women. As James Dao of The New York Times points out, most victims of rape in the military are men.

Amanda Marcotte, at Slate, connects this to society’s beliefs about rape:

“...what this astonishing number demonstrates is the truth of what feminists have been saying about sexual assault all along: It is not caused by an overabundance of sexual desire, but is an act of violence perpetrated by people who want to hurt and humiliate the victim, using sex as a weapon.

“That’s why comments such as Sen. Saxby Chambliss’s during the Senate hearings on rape in the military are not just offensive, but flat-out wrong. Chambliss acknowledged the gravity of the problem but ended up minimizing it by saying, ‘Gee whiz, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.’ These kinds of comments perpetuate the myth that rape is not that big of a deal, the result of miscommunication, or caused by men being just too damn horny and ladies being just too damn sexy to not rape.”

How We (Don’t) Talk About Rape

First, Katie Halper at Jezebel lambasts an AP article that confuses sex with rape. (They’re not the same thing.)

Next up, Joshua Kors, in his article, “Winning the Language War, Defeating 'Military Sexual Trauma'” breaks down how the military’s use of the acronym MST (Military Sexual Trauma) obscures the horror of the actual act. He even interviews On Violence language favorite Geoffrey Nunberg to get his opinion. A must read.

Finally, The New York Times’ “Talking Note” blog explains that the military has had a “zero tolerance” policy for sexual assault for over twenty years now. Since so many soldiers have been reassigned after rape cases, how can they have a zero tolerance policy?

World War II and Rape

Here’s the thing about sexual assault and the military: it didn’t happen in the Greatest Generation’s time. That’s what’s so disappointing about the current crisis. Oh wait...

“In her new book, "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France," Roberts writes that while heroism abounded during liberation, for some Allied troops, command of geographical territory meant command of sexual territory, as well. As they entered and occupied the port towns of Le Havre, Reims, Cherbourg and Marseilles, many soldiers took what they wanted - when and where they wanted - from the French female population.”

Sep 24

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

Last month at a small get together during a trip down south to Orange County, I got stuck in the kind of conversation I hate, a conversation about rape.

I hate talking about rape, because 90% of the time the conversations turn to victim blaming, and this one was no different. In this case, we were discussing the military and rape. First, someone pointed out that the military got their statistics via anonymous surveys; that’s why the number of rapes were so shockingly high. Then the conversation turned to female soldiers not wanting to press charges, which must mean that they are lying. Or that they just got drunk--which violates UCMJ--then said they were raped to avoid getting in trouble.

After staying quiet for most of the conversation, I jumped in and explained why women don’t report the vast majority of rapes (listing off embarrassment, victim blaming, shame) but in the future, I know what I’ll do instead:

I’ll tell everyone to watch the documentary The Invisible War.

It is the most powerful, important, impactful and saddest documentary I’ve ever seen. The Invisible War literally brought me to tears numerous times. As a writer, it’s the most infuriating kind of thing to write about, because all I can do is hurl compliments at it. It’s so good, I literally can’t talk it up enough.

Watch it. Now. (It’s on Netflix)

If you have any doubt that rape in the military is a problem, you won’t after you see this film. (We’ll address some critiques tomorrow.) Based on extensive interviews with victims of rape, the film first proves that rape is a constant for women in the military (it backs up those interviews with the government’s own statistics), explains why the problem persists (a culture that refuses to address the issue and a command structure that cannot successfully investigate or prosecute rape charges), and closes by offering a solution to the problem (take rape cases out of the chain of command).

I mentioned above that it was one of the most impactful films I’ve ever seen. It didn’t just affect me; it also affected Capitol Hill. The Invisible War forced the issue of rape and the military onto the front pages, and, thank God, it seems to have stayed there.

I have to mention that this entire review may seem hypocritical. When I reviewed Restrepo and Exit Through the Gift Shop, I wrote, “Whatever the reason, I just don’t trust documentaries as a medium anymore.” I still feel that way. Most documentaries, whether liberal (Michael Moore), conservative (Dinesh D’Souza) or extremist (Loose Change, Zeitgeist), are incredibly misleading, almost designed to misinform. Even mainstream, issue-based documentaries use dubious statistics and editing tricks.

I don’t feel this way about The Invisible War. For one, all statistics provided in the film come from the U.S. government, which has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to address this issue. And when the government releases politically embarrassing statistics, that makes them more likely to be true. (Plus, the documentary takes the time to explain the methodology behind some of the statistics.)

Second, most of the film is just women--and men--describing their experiences. They put the facts out there, for you to judge.

It’s the best, most honest type of film. See it already.

Sep 19

(To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

We’re against torture. Eric C and I happen to believe that nations or religions which allow their soldiers, intelligence agents, clergy or police forces to torture violate a core human right. Holding that position, we couldn’t watch Zero Dark Thirty without commenting on its portrayal of torture, because it matters. (And the issue of torture is not “morally ambiguous”; it’s unambiguously immoral.)

As Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have explained, hunting down Osama bin Laden took ten years, involved hundreds of people and required thousands of manhours of work. Some scenes, people and facts had to be left out. Yet their decisions on what to leave out and what to put in created a specific narrative. The filmmakers can't defend themselves by saying they left stuff out because of time; they have to defend why the choices they made tell the most accurate story, especially if they want to say that it’s “based on a true story”.

I pointed out a number of mistakes yesterday in Zero Dark Thirty not related to torture. Today, I lay out the misrepresentations of their representation of torture. Bigelow and Boal really missed the mark.

Myth 1: There are only a handful of torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty. Before I saw Zero Dark Thirty, I read a lot of the coverage about its portrayal of torture. Based on this, I thought that torture played a small but controversial part in the film, maybe appearing in one or two scenes. I didn't expect the entire first hour to feature repeated torture sessions or interrogations of detainees immediately post-torture. This portrayal alone makes torture look like the primary method U.S. intelligence used to find Osama bin Laden, which isn’t true. (By the way, the movie picked up after the first hour when it became a spy thriller.)

Myth 2: America only tortures bad people. Again, this is a decision Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow made. They only showed the CIA agents torturing known, 100% guilty terrorists. We’ll never know how many innocent people the CIA renditioned to black sites. Considering how many innocent people were taken to Guantanamo, I have a feeling that a fair amount of misidentified or innocent people made it to our black sites as well. Torturing an innocent Pakistani farmer would tell a much different story to the audience, wouldn't it?

Myth 3: "Everyone breaks; it's human nature." I understand why an interrogator torturing a suspect would tell that suspect, “Everyone breaks; it’s human nature”, as one operative did in Zero Dark Thirty. In Army interrogation manual terms, it’s called "pride and ego down". Crush their hopes, make the situation seem dire, then give the tortured man a way out by talking. Still, the actual statement--”everyone breaks”--isn’t true and most of the audience won’t understand that.

To be perfectly clear, torture does not always work. Same with waterboarding. Often, suspects who "break" mislead, lie or deceive their interrogators...especially if they don't know anything. As Matt Taibbi writes:

“The CIA waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, and throughout this "enhanced interrogation," the former al-Qaeda mastermind continually played down the importance of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, the man who led the CIA to bin Laden. But the CIA was so sure KSM was telling the truth under torture – so sure waterboarding was a "magic bullet," as Gibney put it to me – that they discounted the lead. So torture may have actually delayed bin Laden's capture.”

Myth 4: Torture provided good intelligence. As Steve Coll points out, we just don’t know, because everything is secret:

“The first problem in assessing Zero Dark Thirty’s fealty to the facts about torture is that most of the record about the CIA’s interrogation program remains secret, including the formally sanctioned use of waterboarding and other brutal techniques between roughly 2002 and 2006. So does the full record of the CIA’s search for bin Laden after September 11. Documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups, as well as work by investigative journalists such as Dana Priest of The Washington Post, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Mark Danner in this journal, and Adam Goldman of the Associated Press, have brought forward some details about the CIA’s interrogation program. Yet the record remains riddled with gaps and unanswered questions...

...The result of such secrecy is that what is often described as America’s “debate” about the use of torture on al-Qaeda suspects largely consists of assertions, without evidence, by public officials with security clearances who have access to the classified record and who have expressed diametrically opposed opinions about what the record proves.”

But torture does work in Zero Dark Thirty. They choose, intentionally, to show torture working, instead of showing it misleading or delaying the mission.

Myth 5: The U.S. government punished Americans who tortured inmates. President Obama appears exactly once in Zero Dark Thirty, and in that scene he condemns the use of torture in an interview on 60 Minutes. In another scene, one operative tells the main character to be careful, because someone will be left “holding the bag” on torture. It turns out--thanks to one man's willful destruction of evidence--that no one will be held accountable.

Myth 6: All the intel agencies supported torture. They didn’t. The FBI in particular (and parts of the U.S. military) had deep misgivings about the ethics and legality of “enhanced interrogation”. Some people briefed on the in-depth intelligence have even reported that most of the best intelligence had actually been gleaned before the CIA started waterboarding.

Zero Dark Thirty didn’t include any of this doubt or skepticism. They chose to leave it out. Bigelow in particular has defended her narrative as hewing to the truth. In her words, leaving out torture out of Zero Dark Thirty wouldn’t have told the full story. True, but we think Matt Taibbi perfectly rebuts this point:

“Here's my question: if it would have been dishonest to leave torture out of the film entirely, how is it not dishonest to leave out how generally ineffective it was, how morally corrupting, how totally it enraged the entire Arab world, how often we used it on people we knew little to nothing about, how often it resulted in deaths, or a hundred other facts? Bigelow put it in, which was "honest," but it seems an eerie coincidence that she was "honest" about torture in pretty much exactly the way a CIA interrogator would have told the story, without including much else."

If a film, in search of a better narrative, doesn't tell the most accurate story, then the filmmakers can’t say it is "based on a true story", especially when it comes to a morally complicated issue like torture. They especially shouldn’t refer to it as reportage, and critics shouldn’t praise it for its “honesty” or “accuracy” if it is--as Boal and Bigelow have defended themselves--fictional. In those cases, the film isn’t “based on a true story” but simply a fictional story using real people.

Sep 17

(With our thoughts on Syria published (for now), we return to our 2013 Academy Awards coverage. To read the rest of our posts on the 2013 Oscars, please click here.)

Unlike Argo, whose inaccuracies were treated with a collective media shoulder shrug--the few articles correcting the record were short and off the front page--the inaccuracies in Zero Dark Thirty created a (relative) media maelstrom.

As soon as filming started, conservatives accused the Obama administration of leaking information to make itself look good. When people started seeing the film, liberals accused the filmmakers of pushing a pro-torture narrative. Senators and CIA chiefs got in on the action, debating what was and wasn’t true.

Not all inaccuracies are made equal. According to the article, “The Shooter” in Esquire, the finals scenes of the raid had some small, technical errors. I have to ask: who really cares if they shouted Osama bin Laden’s name or not? In the long run, that’s bad, but fixable. (All this assumes we can even figure out what happened.)

But that doesn’t mean those little mistakes can’t lead to huge misunderstandings. As Eric C pointed out when he reviewed the inaccuracies of Argo, changing a bunch of minor facts can change how Americans see their role in the world. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, this gives many Americans false views on foreign affairs, national security, intelligence and terrorism.

Zero Dark Thirty had so many little mistakes that we divided this post into two parts. Tomorrow’s will deal just with torture; today’s with the rest. So what are the biggest myths peddled by Zero Dark Thirty?

Myth 1: The CIA is super effective. Why isn't this true? See this whole post on topic. Remember, we didn't even know the CIA's budget until last month. The CIA doesn't release good records on successful and unsuccessful operations. They do, though, leak tantalizing stories of their successes in operative memoirs and Hollywood films, as we’ve written about before.

Myth 2: The bureaucracy still sucks. Just as Eric C pointed out with Argo, in Zero Dark Thirty, the federal government can’t do anything right, but intel folks come off looking like superstars. Mindless DC bureaucrats--the CIA station chief in Pakistan, then his replacement (he doesn't deny Maya's requests, he just says, "whatever" and shrugs), then the CIA officials in Washington D.C., then Obama's Chief of Staff--all delay finding Osama bin Laden. Interestingly, Bigelow and Boal never even say what changed Obama's mind, it just kind of happens with about 45 minutes left to go in the film. (That’s what we call a deus ex machina in the biz, folks.)

Myth 3: Terrorism is a grave, continuing threat. The film parades a series of terror attacks before the viewer: starting with the sounds of first responders, Flight 93 passengers and news reports on 9/11; then the 7/7 attacks; then showing the Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing in Pakistan; and finally a suicide attack on a CIA compound in Afghanistan. It leaves the viewers with this conclusion: Osama bin Laden was planning and conducting terror attacks around the world and we needed to kill him.

This version of history is wildly wrong:

- The 7/7 attacks were conducted by homegrown extremists. While Al Qaeda did take credit for the attack, later intelligence discredited their involvement. In other words, they took credit after the fact, without providing logistical or material support.

- The Islamabad Marriott Hotel Bombing was not linked to Al Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. It may have been politically motivated or conducted by another Islamic group. Frankly, we don’t know. Including it, then, seems odd, considering this was a movie about Osama bin Laden.[ital]

- Finally, displaying terror attacks like this make terrorism seem common, even though it it incredibly rare. For proof, see this post, this post, this post, this video, this post, this article, this article or this article. Films like Zero Dark Thirty leave viewers emotionally scared, but logically misinformed.

Myth 4: Pakistan is dangerous for westerners. Not as dangerous as you think. In one scene, analyst Maya is attacked by gunmen entering the Embassy compound. As Guardian journalist Jon Boone describes, this type of scene has happened in Peshawar, but doesn’t really take place in Islamabad. Pakistan, like many third world nations, isn’t as safe as America. But it also isn’t a war zone where Westerners can’t leave their homes without fear of dying. There are parts which are very violent--you know, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas--but not Islamabad.

Myth 5: The CIA analysts approach their targets objectively. Actually, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't show this. They show one agent believing she is right, and doing whatever it takes to prove herself. Guess what? In the run-up to the Iraq War, countless analysts and case officers (and Vice Presidents/Secretaries of Defense) felt the exact same way about the threat of Iraq's WMDs. They desperately tried to make that case. They were wrong.

Throughout the investigation to find Osama bin Laden, plenty of analysts and case officers thought for sure they knew where he was. They were wrong too.

Sadly, the CIA, not the American public, will learn the wrong lesson from this. Instead of relying on data and evidence, they will think, "I will go down in history if I just trust my gut. Isn't that what leaders do?" Of course, they'll be wrong.

So watch Zero Dark Thirty. Enjoy it as a fictional spy story, equivalent to The Bourne Identity, 2 Guns or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But don’t consider it in anyway, "based on true events". It wasn't, not even remotely.

Sep 12

To keep last week’s media post short and readable, we cut a lot of the concrete examples of the media focusing on politics instead of policy, using the WSJ example as a synecdoche of the coverage. We also decided to run our examples of the good coverage today, because good options do exist, and we never want to complain without offering alternatives.

We start with the bad examples...

- The Sunday talk shows. For two successive weekends, the major network’s Sunday talk shows debated Obama’s legacy, not the Syrian civil war. Two Sundays ago, David Gregory on Meet the Press previewed two different segments by describing Syria as “...what may be the biggest challenge yet for the presidency of President Obama.” George Stephanopoulos on This Week asked, “Can his presidency survive a defeat?” Yes. Now, give us some policy implications, not politics.

- Politico. Obviously Politico covers politics, but like this? One article was titled, “United States of Weakness”. They also said a failure to go to war would “cripple his presidency.” Then Politico followed up its coverage by labeling the Obama administration’s secret briefing on Syria a “flop”. The Syria briefing honestly laid out the ways attacking Syria could go wrong, and presented the unvarnished intelligence, instead of hyping it. If it sounds like we are making an Iraq comparison, we are. Politico shouldn’t label President Obama as soft or weak or incompetent for delivering honest briefings to Congress which lay out the complexities, uncertainties and difficulties of military action.

- Political pundits. CNN, in particular, got blasted when it invited Van Jones and SE Cupp to debate Syria. As Andrew Exum tweeted, “@jaketapper You know I am a huge fan of yours, but Syria as analyzed by @secupp & @VanJones68 is why I don't watch @CNN.”

- The push for war even as Syria vowed to give up its weapons. Even as Syria volunteered to give up its weapons, media outlets started reporting that Obama was losing support for an intervention in Congress, then hyperventilated that this could end his presidency. Later in the week, some pundits--especially conservatives--praised Putin’s leadership to criticize Obama. Really?

- On The Media. Though we love this show, we feel their coverage two weeks ago really missed the mark, defending the media’s Syria debate. As their summary put it on the website, “Coverage of the proposed military intervention in Syria is attracting inevitable comparisons to the run-up to the Iraq war, which began 10 years ago. But this time around, with Iraq still fresh in the country's collective memory, the media seem to be more careful.” Nope.

Not everything was terrible. Here’s what we liked:

- The Economist had two pieces arguing for an intervention that focused primarily on the actual conflict, not politics, along with suggestions for what to read online to follow the conflict, a detailed outline of the current war, and then Immanuel Kant’s take. That’s how you cover a possible intervention, even if we disagree with their conclusions.

- The Atlantic’s Conor Friederdorf brilliantly showed how the news coverage of most major media outlets skewed pro-war. In one piece, he describes how inside-the-beltway pundits/experts make this possible; in the other, he writes the news article he wants to read.

- All In with Chris Hayes invited anti-war guests on his show, which helped to balance out the parade of generals on most of the other networks. He also called out the pro-Iraq War pundits who are still “experts” on the Middle East, despite missing the mark in Iraq.

- Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, appropriately slammed the media on his first week back, as we linked to last week.

- Stephen Walt and Andrew Sullivan. We also weren’t the only people who wrote an open letter to their congressman. Stephen Walt wrote one here. And Andrew Sullivan kind of wrote one here.

- Fareed Zakaria, GPS. Finally, though Fareed invited Paul Wolfowitz on his show as an expert on the Middle East, we agree with his take here, analyzing the policy missteps that got the Obama administration embroiled in Syria.