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Petraeus Betray Us?

I’m inclined to agree that the Moveon.org ad about General Petraeus was a bit unfair to the man (although the criticisms in the ad were valid enough). But ever since I heard the ad headline, “Did General Petraeus Betray Us?” every time I hear a politician or journalist use the general’s name on TV, I could have sworn they actually said the word “Betray Us”. Those fricatives are hard to distinguish sometimes.

Why do people show all kinds of outrage when an ad’s headline is slightly excessive and seem oblivious to other things  more worthy subjects of outrage?

With regard to the discrepancy between the Lancet body count estimates and Iraqi body count, there is a simple explanation.

Lots of Iraqis have fled the country over the past few years, and the Lancet extrapolations are based on a faulty estimate of the Iraqi population. In my mind, the only way to validate the study is to confirm that its population estimate was accurate as well. So far I have seen no attempt to do this. (Postscript: I could be way off base about this, but so far I haven’t been able to verify this one way or another–see comments below).

Update: Over the last 24 hours I have substantially revised my opinions. First, the ad itself wasn’t as offensive as people have alleged. Second, you have to read Lakoff’s article about how Moveon.org was right to protest the “betrayal frame” posited by Republicans . He writes:

There is a reason for this, what linguists call ‘metonymy,’ a mode of thought in which a leader stands for the institution he or she leads. If this commonplace metonymy is used, a general in uniform reporting to Congress would be seen as standing for the military as an institution.

Because the Leader-stands-for-the-Institution metonymy is widespread, members of the Senate and the House therefore treated the general with utmost respect at the hearing — lest some members of the public think that they were not respecting the military, which they in fact do respect, and should. The troops, after all, are not betraying us, whatever their commanders and political leaders might be doing. But they and their parents and friends might be offended if someone wearing the uniform were insulted at a Congressional hearing—even if the intended target was the political appointee wearing the uniform and following political orders.

The Bush administration, knowing all this, made sure Petraeus testified in uniform. They knew that no really impertinent questions could be asked, nor impolite accusations made. The event was staged — with Bush going to just about the only relatively safe place in Iraq a few days before. Bush’s framing — that the commanders in the field know best — took advantage of the metonymy. Where Bush had actually let Petraeus know in no uncertain terms what Petraeus was to tell Congress, he used the respect for the military to gain respect for his policy. With his popularity down to about 33% and credibility lacking, Bush was betting on the popularity and assumed integrity of the military. Moreover, Bush made political use of 9/11. He had Petraeus testify on 9/11, when nobody could possibly say anything but nice things and use code words. In short, Bush had put opponents to his policy in a politeness trap. To point out the betrayal inherent in the policy and in the general’s report, they would have had to be disrespectful to the general, which they could not.

But in a country that takes its freedoms seriously, freedom of speech must be maintained. Betrayal through deception is much worse than being impolite. Where tens of thousands of deaths and maimings are concerned, it is immoral not to point out betrayals when they are real. It is patriotic to root out betrayal on grand scale wherever it occurs.

(For more about the Stabbed in the back myth, check out Kevin Baker’s excellent and comprehensive treatment of the subject).

{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Gary Denton 9/21/2007, 12:12 pm

    The Iraqi body count is a count of deaths mentioned in English language media accounts. It severely undercounts the dead.

    From just above the wiki section you link to:

    The authors described the fact that their estimate is over ten times higher than other estimates, such as the Iraq Body Count project (IBC) estimate and U.S. Department of Defence estimates, as “not unexpected”, stating that this is a common occurrence in conflict situations. They stated, “Aside from Bosnia, we can find no conflict situation where passive surveillance recorded more than 20% of the deaths measured by population-based methods. In several outbreaks, disease and death recorded by facility-based methods underestimated events by a factor of ten or more when compared with population-based estimates. Between 1960 and 1990, newspaper accounts of political deaths in Guatemala correctly reported over 50% of deaths in years of low violence but less than 5% in years of highest violence.”

    The second Lancet study is absolutely how you would do a study and the criticisms are overblown. There have been no criticisms that focus on the methodology that offers better ways to conduct the study.

  • Pat C. 9/21/2007, 2:01 pm

    Pray tell me how the MoveOn ad is more “insulting” or “over the top” than the hundreds of sneeringly sarcastic “Purple Heart” bandaids worn at the Republican National Convention. Or, in fact, ANY of the stunts pulled by the Swiftboaters?

  • Robert Nagle 9/21/2007, 6:37 pm

    I am not disagreeing with anything you say. But the Lancet study cites a rate of excess mortality; it then extrapolates according to the population estimate.

    But the refugee count has been enormous. I’m not sure how reliable or up-to-date the mortality estimates are. Wikipedia provides estimates of Iraqi refugees :

    As of 2007 over 3.9 million people, close to 16% of the Iraqi population, have become refugees. Of these, 2 million have fled Iraq for other countries, while approximately 1.9 million are refugees inside Iraq.[165] As of June 21, 2007, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that 2.2 million Iraqis had been displaced to neighboring countries, and 2 million were displaced internally, with nearly 100,000 Iraqis fleeing to Syria and Jordan each month.[166][167]

    Those statistics suggest that 8% of the population is outside of Iraq. I have not seen any attempt by the Lancet study to figure that fact into it. If they haven’t, that would suggest that the Lancet study may be off as much as 8%. Hey, this is good news if true.

    Then again, I have to assume that professional statisticians would factor that into their estimates. I just haven’t seen any explanation.

  • Robert Nagle 9/21/2007, 6:45 pm

    Pat: I agree 100% with you. I came across the Lakoff article the next day and am now unapologetic about defending Moveon.org’s strategy.

    By the way, note that I wrote about this a day later on teleread .

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