Monday, December 28, 2009

Benefit of Doubt

My post from last week questioned the accuracy of Jon Krakauer’s friendly fire numbers, and it generated several comments. One of them was posted on Christmas day by an anonymous viewer.

Here’s what Anonymous said:
"The Brookings Institution data cited above (based on data provided by the DoD) is interesting, but it offers absolutely no data about friendly fire.

The 2006 CBS News article cited above, which reports a rate of death from friendly fire in Iraq of approximately 1%, was based entirely on data provided by the Army. This data has been widely criticized as unreliable. Deaths reported by the Army as enemy fire have later been revealed to be friendly fire on numerous occasions.

The friendly fire numbers cited by Krakauer were the result of independent research performed by the American War Library, a non-partisan organization with no axe to grind. Although the 41% casualty rate from friendly fire in Iraq reported by the AWL seems shockingly high, and may well proved to be incorrect, it seems much more believable than the Army's data. It shold be noted that the AWL's friendly fire numbers for other wars do not seem excessive (21% in WWII, 39% in Viet Nam, etc.). So maybe there is some bad data skewing their Iraq numbers.

The Army's claim of less than a 1% death rate from friendly fire in OIF defies belief even more than the AWL's numbers. Historians consider the casualty from friendly fire in all wars to date to be 10-15%, at a very conservative minimum."
The comment is a good example of the support group mentality in our anti-Republican culture. Mr. Krakauer sets a tone of suspicion against those in a Republican administration and the piling-on begins.

Who deserves the benefit of the doubt? It is not our armed forces or the institutions that audit their data.

In a few short paragraphs we are given the following characterizations:
--The Brookings Institute is a shill for the U. S. Army.
--CBS News has been duped by the U.S. Army
--Data from the U.S. Army is widely acknowledged to be unreliable.

The technique of arguing facts with characterizations works well. It takes an informed reader to realize that U.S. soldiers are not issued IEDs or RPGs or car bombs. These are the weapons used by enemy fighters, and when an overwhelming number of our soldiers are killed by these devices, it is not “friendly fire.”

Still, the suspect statistics are given the benefit of the doubt. Who knows?  There might be a conspiracy at work, and people are certainly capable of lying.

The legacies of CBS News and the Brookings Institute speak for themselves. I’ll speak for our armed services.

The picture above is from the grounds of the United States Air Force Academy. It is a statement of the honor code that becomes a part of the character of each cadet. It is representative of the honor codes at each of our service academies: West Point, Annapolis, the Air Force Academy and the Merchant Marine Academy. These institutions develop career officers for our armed services, and they require students to internalize this statement of conduct.

In our society, it is rare that an institution of higher learning will expel a student for a breach of honor, and yet that can happen at our service academies. Our military takes honor very seriously.

It takes an informed reader to understand this. Without that knowledge, the accusations of lying and cover-up in our armed services seem entirely credible.

While our soldiers engage the enemy on the battlefield, there is also an intellectual battle in play. It is a battle where facts fight characterizations, and the characterizations typically have an advantage.

The previous blog post on Jon Krakauer’s statistics was viewed by fewer than 8,500 people. Mr. Krakauer’s take on things will be read and absorbed by many times that number.  Even with that numerical advantage, our culture will add to the "weight of evidence."

It affords Mr. Krakauer’s point of view the benefit of the doubt.

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