The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Thursday, October 23, 2003

The muted reaction to poor treatment of wounded US servicemen

Of course, nothing should be surprising about the screwy sense of priorities evident in the news agenda of the various sections of the world's media. This, strangely, is.

UPI had a pretty shocking report [1] (October 17) - bylined Mark Benjamin UPI Investigations Editor from Fort Stewart GA that started:
Hundreds of sick and wounded U.S. soldiers including many who served in the Iraq war are languishing in hot cement barracks here while they wait -- sometimes for months -- to see doctors.

The National Guard and Army Reserve soldiers' living conditions are so substandard, and the medical care so poor, that many of them believe the Army is trying push them out with reduced benefits for their ailments. One document shown to UPI states that no more doctor appointments are available from Oct. 14 through Nov. 11 -- Veterans Day.

There are several levels of interest here. First, the Jayson Blair Memorial Question: how far can one believe the piece? Failing evidence on the point, and given that its accuracy does not seem to have been challenged by the DOD, I'm prepared to take it at face value for the moment.

Second, objectively, the story demands further investigation. No one, whether they supported the war or not, would like to see US sick and wounded service personnel treated in the way alleged. Nothing trivial or wacko about it.

Third, from the media viewpoint, the story has tabloid news values out the wazoo - people in pain, apparent callous indifference of jobsworths in authority, angry relatives. But it has the cover of a serious news story - failures in the military health system, the background of things not going well in Iraq. High ratings and a Pulitzer!

Lastly, the story is surely a gift for the Little League - and not only a peacenik like Howard Dean: surely even Joe Lieberman could get some righteous indignation going! And the great thing would be, it wouldn't need to be synthetic.

So, what's the score, media-wise? Rather like the Valerie Plame story in August, it's there, but no sign of take-off. For instance, the St Louis Post-Dispatch (October 22) says that
Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond intends to press the Army to make sure wounded veterans from the Iraq war are provided full medical care, in light of reports that they are being rushed through some facilities or not receiving sufficient care.

We have the Army PR operation denying (October 23) that there was an
order of precedence for medical care, in which the National Guard and Reserve come last.

Though - UPI October 20 - there was enough to the story for
The Army [to say] it is sending doctors to Fort Stewart, Ga., to help hundreds of sick and injured soldiers, including Iraq veterans, who say they are waiting weeks and months for proper medical help.

As far as the wider context is concerned, a TomPaine piece (October 21) mentions earlier failings in US military health care - for instance GAO reports saying that a law requiring health checks of personnel to spot Gulf War Syndrome symptoms was being ignored.

A piece in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (October 22) quotes Col John Kidd from Fort Stewart:
[he] said the reservists' and guard members' complaints that they play second fiddle to full-time soldiers are caused not by a double standard, but by a severe shortage of physicians and other medical personnel.

"You don't get physicians at Wal-Mart," Kidd said in an interview aimed at explaining a controversy that exploded over the weekend.

But fails to highlight the low level of casualties that the Iraq war produced: if a casualty rate of around one or two a day [2] is stretching services, how would they manage if things weren't going so well?

And, did the DOD know that there wouldn't be enough medical staff to cope with even a moderate level of casualties before they started the war?

This story is surely a complete slam-dunk for pols and hacks alike: how can you be accused of being unpatriotic when you're supporting Uncle Sam's own armed forces?

And what about the anti-Rumsfeld forces in the Administration itself? We've had the USA Today Rummygram leak - why aren't guys like - to pick a name at random - Gen Eric Shinseki [3] taking the chance for revenge?

As for the Plumed Knights of the blogosphere, again the story has charted but without remotely the same energy devoted to it as to the (relatively trivial) Gregg Easterbrook saga. (The largest Plume noted the original UPI story on October 17, and that he had emailed Dr. William Winkenwerder [4] with questions. No indication that the good doctor has yet favoured him with a reply.)

Of course, there could be a Sixty Minutes special coming up this weekend. But, to date, coverage of the story - very much not for the first time - has me bemused.

  1. Which I got to via Romanesko's mention of an Editor & Publisher piece (October 20) dealing with the (rather different) question of why US newspapers generally failed to mention to report casualties other than deaths happening to US forces in Iraq.

  2. The CENTCOM casualty search page lists incidents by dead and wounded: tallying up reports from the last 30 days produces a total of 39 wounded.

  3. Who suffered humiliation from Rumsfeld's boy Wolfowitz when he suggested the US might need
    something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers
    to keep the piece in post-war Iraq (March 3).

  4. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, it seems.

Gen Shinseki left the Army while I was looking the other way. However, I doubt whether that exhausts the field when it comes to Pentagon dissenters.

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