Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Stupid lies for short term gain

During the fall of 2001 I was a columnist for my university newspaper and one of the columns I wrote during the anthrax scare had a radical suggestion for Sec. of HHS Tommy Thompson and it was for him to say "I don't know, but we are currently sending samples to the lab and should have preliminary results in X days so ask me then." I wrote this because it was evident that there was numerous contradictory and false information being disseminated by the press and the government and people were doing dumb things like soaking dust masks in Lysol. I believed that if a government official of high rank was willing to admit the truth that he did not know everything, public trust in other official statements would increase. Instead we had a steady stream of retractions, corrections and 'misstatements.'

Telling the truth, even saying that you do not know what the truth is at this moment instead of stating probable or definitive falsehoods and absurdities should be standard operation for any organization that interacts with public opinion and needs public support for a significantly long time horizon. The US military is one such organization, but it has a history of issuing myopic lies in a quest for a short term bump in support at the cost of a legacy of being assumed to be a liar. My buddy MacSwain over at Comments from Left Field has a good short history of some of the more notable incidents in Iraq:

he lies about Pat Tillman's death and the lies about the capture of Jessica Lynch. I akm in awe of Kevin Tillman's courage in calling out the "deliberate and calculated lies" told about Pat and of Jessica Lynch's selflessness and truthfullnesss when they easier - and probably more profitable - route would have been to remain silent.

But let's not forget that the lies coming from our military leadership don't end with these two stories. Indeed, we have been spoon-fed false information from the military on numerous other occasions:

- the cover-up on the civilian deaths in Haditha;

- the bombing of Al Zawahiri in Pakistan that actually resulted in dead women and children and not Zawahiri;

- the false numbers of Iraqis killed during the revenge slaughter following the bombing of the Golden Mosque;

- the wedding bombing;

- the gamed PR of the tearing down of the Saddam statue;

- the bombing death of Chemical Ali.

And those are the ones I can recall just off the top of my head.

The US military is not infallible, and the short term PR cost of admitting mistakes should be made up by the positive long run benefit of having its institutional word trusted when it makes a strong claim. This calculation of not admitting mistakes such as the wedding party bombing, the ambush of a maintenance company in Nassiryah and the wanton killings of civilians in Haditha has failed. This information has gotten out, rather quickly in the case of Jessica Lynch's actions in the ambush of her convoy, and has caused the United States to be mistrusted. The other category of acts of over-exageration are propaganda operations aimed against the American population as Chemical Ali was quickly irrelevant after the invasion of Iraq, and the Firdos Square masquerade was known to be a farce by the people on the ground in Baghdad.

Absurd statements do not help the US military or any large organization. They only provoke laughter and a reputation of incredulousness. It should be a standard policy for the military or any other large organization to make sure that their public statements are accurate to a reasonable man's judgment and not absurd.

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