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Wiseasses in the military dept.


My Country is Smarter than Your Country


by Backsight Forethought



In late 2001 I appeared on a one-hour NPR program about the nature of the military-media relationship. It was a fun gig. There was a live audience and the format was debate-style. I love that shit.

I never took a formal academic course in rhetoric and sort of wish that I once had, but that point is moot. Among my various professional (and unprofessional) diversions in life I have been, at different times, a carnival barker stealing money from the gullible ("Hey mister, win the little lady a stuffed animal"), a radio DJ, and a college professor. That's good enough set for on-the-job-training, I would guess. In any event, the live audience seemed to like it. Though I'll admit that by the end of the session my counterpart, a semi-renowned college journalism professor with a stack of credentials, was a little hot under the collar. Oh well, joke 'em if they can't take a fuck.

I've written and talked on a bunch of different topics on television and radio over the years, so the military-media thing was a natural. I was glad that they hadn't asked me to discuss gays in the military (I am against "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and believe that only economics are screwing things up there, that and the fact that the gay community missed a magnificent opportunity to showcase the hypocrisy of the law by marching 500 or so queens up from the East Village and straight to the Times Square recruiting station and attempting to enlist on 12 September 2001, but that's another column for later) or about civilian control of the military ( I was once quoted in a San Francisco paper as saying that I thought the officers that had criticized Clinton should have been court-martialed) or half a dozen other things. I wasn't really in the mood for developing a detailed position on something new, so since I was then completing a book about the Military and the Media and the Associated Press' monumental screw-ups in their Pulitzer Prize winning No Gun Ri story, it was a debate I could handle in my sleep.

Anyway, one thing leads to another and the next thing I know I am fielding a call from a woman named Ethel Sorokin from the Center for First Amendment Rights up in Hartford Connecticut. Seems she was putting together a panel on the topic of the military and the media in wartime and she needed somebody to speak for "the opposition." ("Since when did the military become the opposition?" I wondered, but let that initial comment pass.) She had a friend at NPR and they recommended me and gave her my contact data. I was at the time working in the left-liberal civilian think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies with a passel of Clinton Administration refugees. Ethel's problem was that there were plenty of people to speak out about defending the First Amendment (indignantly, no doubt), but she didn't know anyone in the military.
Hmmmmm. Ya think?

Well, we had a pleasant conversation, Ethel and I did. I told her about my semi-Chomskyite belief that big media is, largely, in search of a buck and so they tend to put things on the news that sell. I recounted for her a rough sketch of media malfeasance in this regard as it related to the military dating all the way back to the American Civil War. (When one editor in Chicago told a reporter, "I want facts, but if you can't get facts, I want rumors. . ." Yeah, baby.) I told her about the duplicity of the Wilson Administration in World War I, the best part of which was their hiring a former muckraking progressive journalist named Creel. He oversaw the massive propaganda efforts needed to convert the United States from a basically non-interventionist multicultural nation into a blood-lusting mob of anti-kraut lunatics who on at least one occasion lynched a young German immigrant just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was a nice conversation, though at the time I didn't realize it was actually an interview to determine my suitability. I also mentioned a couple of times when military leaders in WWII and Vietnam went too far, and when some journalists had done the same. I am, you see, a historian. Little shit like, well, facts, fascinate me. That and small shiny objects.

Anyway, at the end of about thirty minutes Ethel seems to be ready to commit.

"Well Major Bateman, I think we'd love to have you on our panel," says Ethel.

"Great, it sounds like fun," I reply. ( "Whoopee," I am thinking to myself, "an all-expense-paid trip to that hotbed of social life, West Hartford, Connecticut." )

"And I must say, you speak well, sound very well educated, and seem very intelligent. . . not at all what one would expect from a military officer."

It was, I dunno, a good five seconds later that I responded. I rather gathered that old Ethel was more or less like most of the highly educated Northeaster liberals, or for that matter liberal civilians everywhere, that I had encountered over the course of some eighteen years wearing the uniform. But to get it like that, just so much out there, that was new. Most of them, when talking right to you, at least pretend a little bit that they don't assume that you're somehow mentally deficient for being in uniform, if only for forms sake.

It gave me the time for that elevator thought. (The French call it the "espirit d'escalier," so the American equivalent must involve elevators instead of stairs.) It's when you think of the witty rejoinder when you're in the elevator ten minutes after the meeting, causing you to slap yourself on the forehead and say, "What I should have said was ________."

Well, this time, I wasn't in the elevator. With a smile on my face and in my heart I answered, "Well Ethel, I'd love to come up and speak on the panel and I am very much looking forward to it. And I must say, you sound very intelligent yourself. In my country, however, we don't consider either intelligence or education factors that preclude or prevent military service, but I do very much look forward to coming to your country and learning about what you do there."

Some days it's just fun to be mean.


You'll think of something to e-mail to about three minutes after you turn your computer off

Posted April 4, 2004 12:34 AM






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