On self-censorship

LTC Bob Bateman here again.

Last week a thoughtful reader asked me a deep and profound question. This week, I am sorry to say, I am going to have to give him a weasel answer. Or more accurately, I must not answer at all. (Which still feels weasel-like.)

As Altercators may have surmised by now, I am not particularly well-known for subtlety, indirection, or even much sophistication. I also dearly love a good argument. Hell, nothing makes that point better than the mere fact that I count among my friends three of the most combative public personalities in America: Eric, Hitch, and Tucker. Add into the mix my presumptive VP candidate, and you can see that I have an inclination toward combative friends who write a lot. I note all of this so that we can be clear on one thing: that I like to state my mind and I am generally not shy about doing so. I am also, however, a professional soldier. This matters. Wrestling with the question posed to me by the Altercator in his e-mail led to me thinking more deeply than I usually need to about what we, in uniform, can and cannot say.

Let me begin with a basic premise: Rank matters. That is not elitism; it is merely an observation of facts. Nobody, for example, would take seriously a New York Times business section article about the broad course and strategic direction that Ford Motors or General Electric might take if the sole source cited in the article is a foreman on the factory floor. This is not because the foreman is not wise or educated. He may well be both. But he would not know anything about grand strategic decisions being made at the corporate level, would he? By the same token, an article about local innovations on the factory floor itself should have a quote from that same foreman, and nobody would much care what the higher corporate HQs said. See? It is not elitism; it is a matter of access and knowledge. The same applies to the military.

So it was that in my own command I followed and reissued the general guidance that Lieutenant General (Retired) Hal Moore gave to his men as they left for Vietnam 43 years ago. In essence what he said was this: “Say whatever you want to any reporter, but stick to what you know.” Now, that was a suggestion, but anyone who knows Hal Moore will tell you that his “suggestions” are perhaps a tad more directive than other people's -- a quality to which my running mate can attest. The wisdom therein, however, is solid. In military-speak, we call this “staying in your lane.” Not as in your lane on the highway, of course, but as in your lane on the rifle range. Same concept, though.

This advice applies well when you are a junior officer. Stay in your lane, talk or write about what you personally know, and you are pretty safe. As you ascend in rank, however, it becomes a little more difficult. Mid-grade officers, called “field grades” by the military (Major, Lieutenant Colonel, Colonel), serve a lot of their time on higher-level staffs. Accordingly, they do have personal knowledge of discussions and decisions made at much higher levels. But the trick is that they usually do not know everything that goes into a decision made by a general or one of the civilians appointed over us. And there is the rub. Their “lane” appears wider, but in fact it is not. This is the point at which professional ethics are supposed to kick in. Sometimes, however, they do not. It is sad, but understandable in a way, that many of the “leaks” that come out on various military issues are from officers of just this very grade. Both sides play a part in this of course, the mid-grade officers who are flattered that the journalist wants to talk to them (and often have an axe to grind) and who are made heady by their proximity to power here in the Pentagon and in DC in general, and the reporters who enable these sentiments in order to write a story.

This is how I put the issue once before, in my column for the Committee for Concerned Journalists (modified slightly for Altercators):

“I live in Washington, D.C., literally on top of Capitol Hill, and so I am the first to admit that there is a certain utility to the anonymous quote. Ah hell, who am I kidding? There is a huge amount of utility. Allowing people to become anonymous sources makes a reporter's research a hell of a lot faster. Easier, too. The reporter does not need to spend hours on the phone or in person trying to talk a recalcitrant source into going ” on the record." Nope, the journalist knows the rules, and so do the sources. And with a flicker of magic journalism dust, a reporter can transform the anonymous-to-all-but-his-mom-anyway junior staffer from the office of Congressman Whatshisnameanyway from Ohio into, “one Capitol Hill source close to the legislation issue said.” Besides, that sounds so much more impressive than “Thomas Kent, 23, the mail-opener in the office of Congressman...”

Now, truthfully, this does not much apply to me. Unlike about 99 percent of my peers, I have venues in which to vent. I write here, I write for various professional and commercial magazines and journals, I have written books, and I write for newspapers. In other words, I have outlets to blow off steam, and seeing my name in print is not something new and ego-stroking for me as it was, perhaps, when I was 23 or 24. But I understand my brothers and sisters for whom talking to a journalist is a new and flattering experience. The rules that should apply, however, are professional ones. At a certain point you have to realize that if you say something publicly you may be boxing in the options and choices that your civilian masters have about a topic.

Mostly this only applies to generals, of course. They are the ones with the clout, they are the ones who make decisions at the national level. They are the ones who are asked for their private advice by our civilian leaders. And this is the sticking point for me, because although I am most definitely not a general, nor is it likely that I will ever be one even if I wanted to take that path, I do have a moderately outsized “voice.”

So when that Altercator asked me a very serious and honest question about strategy and how the United States should proceed in the current conflicts, which is sort of part of my “day job,” I came to realize that I could not answer him. If I put forward here my “plan for making everything right,” then that, to some small degree, becomes part of the dialog to which politicians must respond. It limits their range of actions by becoming not private military advice but, rather, public and political points to be debated. This is exactly backward from how it should be. In the natural order of things, I should only give my professional opinion on things strategic to leaders at the strategic levels (be they generals or civilians) which they may then consider and entertain without concern about outside opinions on this recommendation. So, dear Altercators, that is why I must abstain on this topic today.

Sometimes you just have to remember to stay in your lane.

You can write to LTC Bob at R_Bateman_LTC@hotmail.com.

Department of Alternate Realities:

Last week I wrote six sentences that generated more virulent hate mail than I have experienced in all my time writing. I said that I despised the Confederacy and the slavery which that political body attempted to preserve. You will be happy to hear, however, that none of the hate mail came from Altercators. Some of it has been pretty stiff stuff, as these folks have threatened violence against me, my wife, my dog (and I don't even have a dog), and the destruction of my property. Instead, it came from the fun folks at the SHNV site.

At that site you will learn, for example, the following:

“The true bloods of the South are a distinct ethnic people, they are also Confederate American by birth. Dixie is a conquered nation, being conquered does not change the above truths!! They tried to destroy our Southern culture during the infamous reconstruction implemented by Congress, which imposed martial law in the Southern States, from 1866 to 1877... eleven years!!! We became U.S. citizens by force, not choice!”

Nice folks, those.

The professor who will save the world:

I think history is important, but I recognize we historians have our limitations. I, for example, can do little more than change the oil and the filters on my car, and I will never invent anything. But there are things which need to be invented, badly. So if you do not know who Amy Smith of MIT is, you should. People like her are going to save the world. (I recommend buying this month's paper copy of the magazine for the full article as well.)

Bateman/Pierce '08 cabinet appointments:

My Veep-to-be proposed this fellow for our Cabinet. I heartily agree. As Galloway's former housemate, I can certify that he too has a “subtle switch” broken in the “off” position. Besides, it is always better to keep Galloway in front of you, where you can see him. He fights like I do.

An Altercator (and ex-Navy vet) already proposed himself as SecNav via e-mail, so that one is filled. But that leaves a whole lot of cabinet positions open. Who do you think should fill the rest of the key positions? Nominations are open.

George Zornick writes:

I spent my holiday weekend in my hometown of Buffalo, which is still in full Tim Russert mourning mode - even the public buses are carrying his image around town.

But I saw a more striking picture on the front page of the Buffalo News, of a long-and-getting-longer line of people in front of the Friends of Night People food pantry, which has already served 4,000 more meals in the first half of this year than it did during the same period last year. The economic downturn is hitting the hardest in already down-turned cities and particularly the working poor who live there -- the accompanying article makes it clear that the people waiting for food do have homes, and likely have jobs, but are “overwhelmed by the soaring costs of food, gasoline, utilities, medicine and other necessities.”

It's shameful that in the richest country on earth, residents in many cities are lining up by the hundreds because they can't afford to eat dinner. It's even more shameful when one considers where taxpayer money is actually being spent during this crisis. On June 30th, President Bush signed into law a $162 billion War Supplemental spending bill, providing an additional $130 billion for the Iraq War alone. That would make the current cost of that war $656.1 billion.

The National Priorities Project calculates how much money has already been allocated to the Iraq war, and extrapolates the burden of cities and states - Buffalo's share of the Iraq War, for example, is $418.5 million dollars and counting. That could pay for 2,917 affordable housing units (the city of Buffalo owns thousands of vacant lots, mostly of people who were unable to pay their taxes), or 179,348 children with health care for year, or 83,752 scholarships for university students for one year.

The city is taking steps towards improvement, having for example just completed a beautiful waterfront project, but it's kind of hard to stay afloat when the city is suffering and struggling from the bottom up. And the same is true nationally.

But this is the sad legacy of Bush's Iraq War.

Correspondence Corner:

Name: John Ruffier
Hometown: Orlando, FL

As I watched Lindsey Graham on Sunday's morning talk show repeating for what seems like the millionth time that Barack Obama has not been to Iraq in “x” number of days like McCain, I always wonder why the Democrats don't respond with “well, Senator Graham, the last time Senator McCain visited Iraq, he came back and told us that he learned Iraq was stable since he could walk through markets unprotected and General Petraeus could drive around in an unarmored truck. Of course, we learned that his walk through the market was with a flak jacket, surrounded by troops and Blackhawk helicopters and General Petraeus clarified that he would NEVER drive around except in an armored vehicle. So, what good is visiting Iraq if the lessons you learn are all false?” It seems like a simple response to their foolish argument, but one I never hear. I can't believe nobody else has thought of this. Other than the unwritten rule of “don't question Saint McCain” is there any reason this response wouldn't work?

Name: Mark Paul
Hometown: Highland Park, IL

The usually reliable Pierce uncharacteristically misses the point of Intelligent Design. ID's great advantage is that it's much cheaper to teach than biology: no need for labs.

Name: Jim Celer
Hometown: Omaha

First, Mr. Pierce's choice as 2nd greatest ballplayer ever may actually BE the 2nd GBPE. But there was a contemporary who might also be the 2nd GBPE, the absolutely unhittable-for-a-good-five-years Mr. Koufax.

Second: I don't understand the continued insistence (most recently from Mr Kaplan) that Gen. Clark put Obama's foot in his mouth. Schieffer brought it up! His implicit question to Clark was “Isn't McCain better because Obama was never shot down in an airplane?” Sure, I suppose Gen. Clark could have answered “Yes” or “No” and let it go at that. That he chose to point out the irrelevancy swirling around the room is a temptation I think few of us would have resisted.

Name: Frank
Hometown: Amherst


You hipster with a heart of gold, for so long you've made righteous indignation swing and I have swooned at your every turn of phrase.

So what gives with dissing the Pixies. In point of fact, the Pixies are possibly the greatest band of the last 25 years. There is no band I would not take them into a battle of bands against.

Surely, you can't be serious.

Elvis' absence -- that's another thing all together.

Name: Jim
Hometown: Washington, DC

The Pixies are by far the superior band to the J. Geils Band -- not only musically and lyrically, but (having seen both bands perform) as performers -- J. Geils doesn't hold a candle to either Frank Black or Kim Deal alone, let alone together. And your teeth-gnashing over the absence of Elvis in the 50 best rock and roll solo acts by state should cease immediately. The idea of the article was that they were choosing the best band and solo artist FROM each of the 50 states. Elvis, while a great and influential talent, was from Mississippi(Tupelo), also the home state of Robert Johnson, perhaps the single most influential blues musician of all time. Johnson has been called the “Grandfather of Rock 'n' Roll” , and among those who credit him as one of the greatest influences on their music are John Fogerty, Bob Dylan, Johnny Winter, Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers Band, The Rolling Stones, Paul Butterfield, The Band, Neil Young, Warren Zevon, Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, Robert Palmer, Jack White and Eric Clapton. He was also ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. Without Johnson, there would have never been rock-n-roll --or Elvis, for that matter .

Name: Greg Panfile
Hometown: Tuckahoe NY

Charles - dude -- and Eric too, credit the Contours for “First I Look at the Purse” just in case any ignorant person doesn't know the source. The very next to last couplet in the coda is kinda hard to top if you're going in that funk rooster direction (this record was in John Lennon's personal jukebox btw):

“She can be covered with a rash
Long as she got some cash...”

Ridiculous, audacious, brilliant.

Name: Beth Harrison
Hometown: Arlington, VA

Siva, you will eat your words come October 11, 2008. Final score -- Oklahoma 28, Texas 3.