By Robert Bateman
The United States Army seems to have a nearly limitless capacity to screw things up by the numbers. We do a lot of things well, even under the most trying conditions imaginable. But it might be fair to say that just behind our ability to shoot the enemy ranks our skill at shooting ourselves in the foot. And even when our mistakes are honest and minor, they seem to find their way into the news.
A reader recently sent me a link to a Columbia Journalism Review story about two photos that had been retracted by the Associated Press. Each photo showed one of two sergeants recently killed in Iraq in what appears to have been a case of fragging by a subordinate. The problem, noted by an alert editor at a newspaper in Texas, was that except for the faces and the nametags, the two images were completely identical. They had been Photoshopped. And since the AP had gotten the photos from an Army public affairs officer at Fort Stewart, Georgia, it appeared the Army was at fault.
The blogosphere exploded into an orgy of conspiracy theorizing. Typical comments on the normally staid CJR site included gems such as: "With it now clear to virtually everyone that the U.S. government is entirely owned and operated by compulsive liars, I'm not clear why any self-respecting news organization would ever again accept press releases, comments, recordings, videos, or photos from anyone on the federal payroll." And by another reader: "Probably a military adviser soldier that got killed in the Russian/Georgia conflict and now that he is dead they need to put on the official list as dead but can't release the soldiers true picture otherwise the Ruskies might match the body up."
My own correspondent, at least, was more measured. He wrote to me (used with permission):
[This article] caught my attention because of my recent last email to you where I spoke about "lying," both governmental and military and why academia often mistrusts individuals like you who try and bridge the gap of mistrust between academia and the military.
It's a small thing in itself. It's a very short retraction story by the AP of two photos of two young men killed in Iraq. The photos, or at least one of them had been Photoshopped. I don't understand this. I can surmise a number of scenarios of why they might like to but I can't understand actually going to the trouble to do so. This was a deliberate act of deception.
Since I was curious, I tried to dig to the bottom of this one. (As I have said before, I am not now, nor have I ever been, a public affairs officer or in any way related to anything even remotely associated with that stuff. But I did used to date a PAO, and have several friends who are PAOs now. So I went to the source and asked what happened.) Here, then, is the story.
It turns out that the Photoshopped photos were not produced by "Big A" Army, by which I mean the institutional Army and the public affairs office at Fort Stewart. They were made by the unit inside Iraq, apparently the battalion, expressly for the memorial service at their forward operating base. It seems that they did not have a nice photo of one of the sergeants. And so a soldier (probably an infantry sergeant, not a graphics artist) jimmied up semi-official-looking images using what the squad had on-hand.
It was those photos that got e-mailed back to the unit's home base at Fort Stewart. I'm not clear on how that happened, so this next part is informed speculation, but it seems to have been informal. Probably the two images traveled from the forward deployed unit to their own "rear detachment," the small group every battalion leaves behind to take care of things at the home station. And probably the public affairs people asked, "Hey, you have some photos? The media want whatever we got." The Rear-D soldiers, not being aware of the origins of the images, sent them on, and the public affairs office, also not knowing the origins and provenance of the photos, released them to the media.
It's still boneheaded, but more along the lines of typos. I was ready to blame the public affairs office for this, but as it was apparently just some poor infantry sergeant trying to make something to commemorate his peers, INSIDE the unit, no, I'm not excited about this now.
* "LPC" is Leather Personnel Carrier. In other words, your boot. It's a self-deprecatory term used in the light infantry to contrast with those others who move about the battlefield in Armored Personnel Carriers, aka APC's.
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