Casualties of rhetoric

Yesterday, Slacktivist commented on the difficulty of finding reliable accounting of injuries to soldiers in Iraq. Fred’s interest was prompted in part by a Daniel Zwerdling radio report [realaudio] that offers an estimate of 9,000 injured troops, but in which Zwerdling gets an almost comical series of runarounds from various officials who, one would think, should know this stuff.

For example, Jim Turner, a spokesman for Donald Rumsfeld, tells Zwerdling, “Sure, the Pentagon collects lots of statistics, but we don’t collect all statistics for all people all of the time.” Seriously, he really said that.

When Zwerdling calls US Central Command, he is told that they, “on a daily basis, have been directed to send the casualty numbers up to the office of the secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.” Senator Chuck Hagel gets the snub, too. His official inquiry resulted in a letter from that Pentagon explaining that they simply lack that information.

The story all by itself is striking: At best, there seems to be no consistent method for counting injuries—which raises various problems for treatment, cost, and, compensation for injuries—and at worst it appears that the Pentagon or other agencies are neglecting an important duty or are outright lying about the information that they do have. This is important stuff, as Zwerdling notes: “I have all kinds of questions here: How many of the soldiers have brain damage? How many are blind? How many have lost limbs? ... How many have severe depression or emotional illnesses brought on by the war?”

These shouldn’t be abstract questions. They are the material cost of waging any war. When we hear or read of injuries, we are hearing shorthand for amputations, surgeries, broken limbs, and scars that are physical and psychological. It seems important for the media and the public to want to know these figures.

So while I was intrigued by the story, I was stunned by one of the listener responses to it that was later read on “All Things Considered.” The writer said that the story was like “the New York Times at its very worst” and “pity poor leftist, elitist Daniel Zwerdling.” The Times comment should be a red flag, I guess; the writer interprets any criticism to be a liberal smokescreen, which should should be enough to identify the writer as another holdout adherent to the liberal media conspirarcy theory. But the elitist insinuation really gets me. Is it elitist by association because Zwerdling is liberal? Maybe Zwerdling himself really is elitist, the worst kind of limousine liberal, but from his reporting record, I sort of doubt it. According to his bio he has spent an awful lot of time reporting on decidedly non-elite things like factory working conditions, economic trouble for farmers, and chemical pollution in working-class neighborhoods.

Is it elitist to ask critical questions of the government agencies charged with keeping this information? In this case, that would suggest that the writer has a pretty narrow interpretation of the “support the troops” doctrine, I guess.

With nothing more than a sense that Zwerdling’s story on injuries is somehow inappropriate, the author applies the elitist liberal label, with which Zwerdling’s troubling report can be dismissed, bypassing any serious consideration.

On one hand, this may be far too much consideration given to one backhanded comment to a radio story. But on the other hand, the comment and its language of elitism is emblematic of the polarizing rhetoric that people like Rush Limbaugh have fostered for years. It’s not an accident that the author of the comment heard Zwerdling present information that might—eventually—be used to criticize the administration, the war, or the Department of Defense, and immediately dismissed the entire project as a product of leftist and elitist muckraking. Of course, liberals and conservatives are both guilty of this kind of shorthand from time to time; I’m not about to claim immunity from the impulse to a knee-jerk response. But I would at least like to think that some issues, like tracking and providing proper care for the injured, are neither inherently conservative nor liberal projects.