Joe Conason's Journal

Propagandizing soldiers for partisan gain is typical of armies in banana republics. In the U.S. military, it's a disgrace.

Published October 14, 2003 10:31PM (EDT)

Promoting the good news
ABC News has revealed the identity of the author of those identical letters to the editor from U.S. soldiers in Iraq: He's the commanding officer of the battalion whose members supposedly sent the letters to their local newspapers back home.

Owning up to the "initiative" was Lt. Col. Dominic Caraccilo, who evidently agrees with the president's complaint about the negative tone of Iraq news coverage. (Last spring the colonel was involved in one of several incidents in which an Army unit was reported, incorrectly, to have discovered a chemical weapons cache.)

"With the current and ongoing media focus on casualties and terrorist attacks, we thought it equally important to share with the American public, and especially the folks from our soldiers' hometowns, the good news associated with our work in Kirkuk," the colonel explained to ABC.

No doubt each and every one of the soldiers approached by their C.O. to sign the letter agreed wholeheartedly with his sentiments about the good works that the Army is accomplishing in Kirkuk (except perhaps for the private who supposedly signed the letter although he said he had never read it).

But what would the soldiers have told the C.O. if they disagreed? It's inappropriate at best for a military officer to circulate a form letter among soldiers under his command, and then suggest that their signatures were entirely voluntary. Everyone knows what "volunteer" often means in the military.

CNN senior international correspondent David Clinch said this morning that the colonel had "stepped over a line":

"I think there was definitely a sense of embarrassment on the military leadership's part about this ... I mean if you saw a letter from a U.S. soldier in Iraq in a paper now, would you trust it? I don't think I would, and that's really the point. I think I called it yesterday an insult to those U.S. soldiers who are out there and I think it is. I mean, yes, there is good news to be told, but I think they deserve to tell it themselves, and they also deserve the chance to say there is bad news. And we need to give them the opportunity to do both. So [this was] an unfortunate incident on behalf of the U.S., that particular commander."

Meanwhile, my friend Mark Crispin Miller has heard about a Florida National Guard public affairs officer who apparently used his post to promote President Bush's reelection. The Guard officer spammed a genuine letter from an Army specialist serving in Iraq, who endorses the president because "he has the guts to do what's right, not what's just popular." While the soldier has every right to send any letter he wants to any newspaper, the Guard officer's decision to circulate it smacks of Republican propaganda. Appending a disclaimer that the letter "does not reflect the official position of the Florida National Guard and Dept. of Defense" merely looks disingenuous.

Propagandizing soldiers and citizens for partisan gain is typical of armies in banana republics. In the U.S. military, it's a disgrace.
[3:30 p.m. PDT, Oct. 14, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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