Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2003 / 14 Teves, 5764
Giving the Prez's critics an undeserved pass
Americans give more credence to news stories than we know we should, thanks
to the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, said Michael Crichton, the physician
turned novelist and screenwriter.
"You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well,"
Crichton said in a speech in April, 2002. "In Murray's case, physics. In
mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has
absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the
article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward - reversing
cause and effect.
"You read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and
then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the
rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the
baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know."
"In ordinary life, if someone consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you
soon discount everything they say," Crichton said. "But when it comes to the
media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to
read other parts of the paper. When, in fact, it almost certainly isn't."
Many pundits owe their careers to the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. Why
else would we still be listening to those who predicted the wars in
Afghanistan and Iraq would be "quagmires" - military disasters for the
United States which would produce thousands of civilian deaths, tens of
thousands of refugees, and angry mobs overthrowing governments throughout
the Arab world?
The bulk of Crichton's speech was a criticism of the news media's tendency
to speculate. Because journalists have such difficulty getting the present
and the past right, they ought not to devote so much effort to predicting
the future, which no mortal can do.
An example of getting the present and the past wrong is the now common
assertion that the biggest mistake the U.S. has made in the occupation of
Iraq was the demobilization of the Iraqi army. Even the esteemed Charles
Krauthammer has repeated this canard.
The point isn't whether it would have been a good idea or a bad idea to keep
Saddam's army around. The point is that there was no Iraqi army to keep
around, a fact which journalists could easily have ascertained, had they
been willing to interrupt their speculation with a little reporting.
"By the time coalition forces reached Baghdad, Hussein's army had ceased to
exist," said Walter Slocombe, under secretary of defense for policy during
the Clinton administration. "There was not a single organized unit intact
when major combat ended. All Iraqi soldiers who survived had, in the
Pentagon's jargon, self-demobilized."
When the Iraqi soldiers deserted, they took with them all military gear
worth stealing. What little they left behind was looted by civilians from
abandoned base camps.
But had there been an Iraqi army after April 7, it would have been a bad
idea to rely on it to help rebuild Iraq, as Slocombe, now the director of
national security and defense for the Coalition Provisional Authority,
explained in the Washington Post Nov. 5.
Below the officer level, Saddam's army consisted of badly paid, horribly
mistreated, mostly Shi'ia conscripts who hated their officers.
"They certainly weren't going to heed the call of their officers to return,
and we were not about to send press gangs out to round them up," Slocombe
The officer corps was comprised almost exclusively of Sunni Muslims chosen
more for their loyalty to Saddam than for their military competence. And the
officer corps was unbelievably bloated. Saddam's army was about the same
size as the U.S. Army, but had 11,000 generals to America's 307; 14,000
colonels to the U.S. total of 3,500.
The CPA had no choice but to build a new Iraqi army, with officers vetted
for competence and loyalty, and more representative of the ethnic and
religious diversity of the population.
The CPA has made mistakes in its administration of Iraq. But it has made
fewer, and far less egregious mistakes than its critics have. But - thanks
to the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, the critics are given an undeserved
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