Truth Or Consequences

For a brief moment at a think-tank speech here in Washington a few weeks back, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared to be unholstering the same, classic loose-lips-sink-ships argument that wartime White Houses have been firing at their critics since the Royal Marines burned James Madison's wartime White House nearly to the ground: When American soldiers start getting shot at overseas, the kind of partisan misrepresentation and outright falsehood to which we routinely subject our chief executive when we are at peace should simply stop. For, Cheney suggested, "untruthful charges against the commander in chief have an insidious effect on the war effort itself."

So one might argue, at any rate. And so the vice president himself might now be willing to argue about terrorism and Iraq, he acknowledged--were it not for his absolute confidence in the resolve of our frontline troops. So fine and true is "the character of the United States armed forces," Cheney advised his audience, that no amount of civilian griping back home can possibly defeat them.

There are two things worth noting about the argument Dick Cheney is "unwilling" to make concerning White House critics and troop morale. The first is that the problem is not the morale of forward-stationed U.S. servicemen, which has remained remarkably high. If the war is to be lost, it will be a collapse of stateside civilian morale that loses it. Everything else is secondary; domestic public opinion is almost all that matters, as the vice president, of all people, must surely be aware.

The second thing worth noting about Cheney's not very significant argument is the thrilled, have-you-no-decency-sir reaction it's inspired from his opponents. A plausible guess can be ventured why they are so thrilled. In nowadays America, dissenters from executive-branch national security policy like nothing better than to cast themselves as Joseph Welch--bravely holding fast to honor and righteousness even as some Senator McCarthy figure at the White House impugns their patriotism. But the play can't start until the impugning does. So everyone's impatient to feel impugned. That speech by the vice president? It'll do. "Ugly" and "demagogic," huffs columnist Michael Kinsley. "After all, if untruthful charges against the president hurt the war effort . . . then those charges will hurt the war effort even more if they happen to be true. So [Cheney is] saying in effect that any criticism of the president is essentially treason."

Here we have an unusually fascinating variety of nonsense logic. How can it be demagoguery to complain about a lie? If that kind of "demagoguery" is now to be forbidden, how will anyone be able to tell lies from truth in the first place? And if they can't be told apart, what will make those still-circulating, unexposed falsehoods any less threatening to the war effort? Anyhow: Since when has an accusation's ability to screw up the president's plans been thought more important than the accusation's fundamental validity? "Stifling criticism that might shorten the war is no favor to American soldiers," Kinsley writes--the apparent corollary being that any and all such criticism, sound or spurious, is to be welcomed with open arms.
Kinsley is hardly the only one who's proceeding on that assumption, incidentally. Consider a recent piece of news produced by the American Civil Liberties Union--which outfit, whatever else one might be inclined to say about it, has never before been known for evidentiary carelessness.

On October 24, the ACLU made public an analysis of several dozen autopsy reports and related documents obtained from the Pentagon by means of a Freedom of Information Act request for records concerning foreigners detained in Afghanistan and Iraq. The deaths-in-custody of 44 such detainees were detailed in those documents, according to the ACLU's press release and accompanying explanatory chart. According to the original documents themselves--which are posted on the ACLU's website--the actual number of deaths involved appears to be only 43. But never mind about that. More to the point--the intended point being, in the words of the press release, that "U.S. operatives tortured detainees to death during interrogation"--was the contention that the Pentagon itself had labeled 21 of these 43 deaths "homicide."

That number wasn't even close to accurate. The documents show that military medical examiners attributed 19 of the 43 deaths to natural causes, 2 others to factors as yet "undetermined," called one further death an "accident," and left the "manner of death" box in 8 case files entirely blank. There were 13 official "homicides," not 21. And documents associated with at most 5 of those homicides contain even the vaguest hint of possible wrongdoing by American personnel. The other 8 appear to have been "homicides" only in the technical sense that mortuary physicians use the term--to indicate any nonaccidental death resulting from human agency, whether sinister or innocent.

And what would an entirely innocent homicide look like, you ask? Innocence is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but try this on for size: Two of the very same "homicides" the ACLU has for two months now been content to cite as evidence of "widespread" human rights abuses involve wounded Iraqi insurgents captured after armed engagements with American troops. Both men were evacuated to U.S. hospitals where surgeons attempted to save their lives. But neither man survived his injuries.

Not the sort of thing they investigate on Law and Order.

And not the sort of thing that American newspapers and television networks any longer investigate either, apparently. The ACLU's October 24 press release was extensively covered in the press. And its "21 homicides, many under questionable circumstances" datum has since become a "fact," inevitably cited in an endless stream of stories about our current government's peculiar propensity for torture and other such subhuman activities. No one seems to have noticed that the whole thing is bogus.

But hey, so what--right? Untruthful charges like these could help "shorten the war." How dare the vice president complain about them.

By David Tell, for the Editors