by Jeff Huber
An interview with a segment of the foreign media brought home to me why the peace movement has completely lost whatever traction it may have had.
The call came: could I tape and interview about the recent atrocity in Afghanistan. Which one? I said. Wait, we’ll send you the story, they replied. So I got a link in the email and clicked and up popped a story at the web site of the UK’s Daily Mail.
The phone rang again. Yes, I got the link and found the story. Could I be ready to tape the interview in five minutes? No, I needed at least half an hour to read the story and see what else has been written about the incident before I cared to go on record with any sort of opinion about it. The news babe at the other end seemed disappointed by that, but okay, she’d call back in a half hour.
“U.S. bombing wipes out Afghan village from map,” read the Daily Mail headline (the headline has since been changed to “The Afghan village that’s been wiped from the map - with 25 tons of coalition bombs”).
Wikipedia says the Daily Mail was Britain’s first daily newspaper aimed at the “lower-middle-class market.” According to a December 2004 survey, Wikipedia tells us, 53% of Daily Mail readers voted for the Conservative Party, compared to 21% for Labour and 17% for the Liberal Democrats. Wikipedia also informs us that Science writer Ben Goldacre of The Guardian has described the Daily Mail as "the home of the scare story."
So we can tentatively surmise that the Daily Mail is at best as credible as FOX News. A lot of people say as much about Wikipedia, but a lot of the people who say that aren’t happy with what Wikipedia says about them. Moreover, authors of Wikipedia articles tend to cite their sources—the article on the Daily Mail has 73 footnotes, the vast majority of them hyperlinked.
The author of the Daily Mirror story, Lewis Bazwell, cited zero sources, at least zero sources who have any real knowledge of what actually happened to the Afghan village—Tarok Kolache, a small settlement in Kandahar—that the U.S. bombing reportedly obliterated.
“After two attempts at clearing the village led to casualties on both sides,” Bazwell writes, “Lieutenant Colonel David Flynn, commander of the Combined Joint Task Force 1-320th gave the order to pulverise the village.” Bazwell tells us that Flynn’s unit employed a mine clearing charge that “hammered a route into the centre of Tarok Kolache using rocket-propelled explosives.” The destruction “escalated” Bazwell goes on to say, “with ’49,200lbs of ordnance’ dropped on the village via air strikes and ground-launched rockets, which saw it swiftly blown off the face of the earth.”
The quotes around “49,200lbs of ordnance” make it sound like Bazwell is citing some reliable source verbatim, but he doesn't say who or what that source is. And characterizing the mine clearing system in question as having “rocket propelled explosives” is misleading.
Bazwell does identify two sources by name, but not to support anything he’s presented as fact. One source is Erica Gaston, who says “I think this property destruction has likely reset the clock on any nascent positive impressions.” Erica is an Afghanistan based “researcher” for the Open Society Institute. There’s no telling from the article where her knowledge of “this property destruction” came from. Odds are that her source was Bazwell.
Bazwell’s other source is Paula Broadwell, a “West Point graduate” who wrote that Lt. Col. Flynn’s men were “terrified to go back into the pomegranate orchards to continue clearing [the area]; it seemed like certain death.” Ms. Broadwell wrote the comment in a blog run by formerly credible Pentagon correspondent Tom Ricks, who years ago became senior media concubine for David Petraeus. According to Ricks, Broadwell is a “friend of the blog” who is “knocking around Afghanistan, checking out operations and visiting some West Point buddies.” So Broadwell is an amateur journalist working with pseudo-journalist Ricks whose credibility is on par with Bazwell’s. (She might be the source of the “49,000lbs of ordnance” statement, but it’s hard to say, and if so, where did she get that number?)
Bazwell stuffs a mountain of a straw man when he states that “General David Petraeus has reportedly told his commanders to follow the destructive model seen in Tarok Kolache,” but only offers inferential evidence that Petraeus said anything of the sort. (“Inferential evidence” generally involves taking a third party’s words out of context, trimming them to suit your purposes, and then planting them in a fourth party’s mouth.)
The piece’s piece of resistance is a before and after picture of the village, which may not have been photo shopped, but if the Daily Mail is above photo-shopping a picture like that to support its agenda or sell bandwidth I’m a monkey’s weight-loss coach.
So I google “Afghan Village wiped out” and everything that pops up, included a blurb in Wired, cites the Mail story, so Bazwell and The Mail have created a lovely echo chamber out of skewing a report originally made by a hobbyist (Broadwell) and supported by a picture that might have come from the Disney animation studio for all we know.
The foreign news babe calls back and she asks me what I have to say about the latest U.S. atrocities in Afghanistan. I read her the riot act about giving credence to an incredible news story and tell her that she and the rest of the international have enough legitimate complaints to make against U.S. policy and strategy and tactical execution in the Bananastans without mucking around in crap of this kind. So she asks if I’m saying there are more important war crimes to investigate than this one, and I do an Ozzy Osborne number on her head. I suspect the interview never aired.
Now, there’s a one-in-a-thousand chance that Bazwell’s Mail story is a hundred-percent true and it just sounds like a lie because Bazwell and his outlet are so used to lying they don’t know how to sound like they’re not. The problem is that every cock-and-bull story like this that goes around the circuit makes every responsibly reported and legitimate story in this vein sound like cock-and-bull roar too.
So if the stupid bloody peace poofters who ring their hands and cry like rivers over every war atrocity fable that crawls out of the polluted information swamp really want to help the peace movement, they should just shut the f*ck up.
Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) is the author of the critically applauded novel Bathtub Admirals, a satire on America’s rise to global dominance.