By The Numbers

I don't really know what to say about the controversy various rightwing bloggers and The Weekly Standard are trying to gin up over this TNR diarist article attributed to a soldiers currently serving in Iraq publishing under a pseudonym. Obviously, it's not beyond the realm of the conceivable that The New Republic would be taken in by a fabulist or else that they would just decide to publish slanders against other people, calling them anti-semites or Nazi collaborators or whatnot.

That said, the specific contentions being made against the piece (most of them can be found by scrolling around the Standard's blog) are pretty unconvincing. You have a bunch of nitpicking about the technical details of some of the hardware described, plus some Army public affairs people denying that anything improper would happen in Iraq, plus a lot of huffing and puffing. On the other side, TNR says their editors have spoken to other soldiers who witnessed the key events, and they corroborate the story.

On some level, this is a simple numbers game. If you had any group of people where 95 percent of them behaved extremely well all the time, you'd call that a very upstanding group of people. But if that was a group of 150,000 people, that would still leave you with 7,500 bad apples. Military officers will tell you that they, like supervisors everywhere, probably spend 95 percent of their time worrying about just 5 percent of their subordinates -- the troublemakers. And say they generally do a good job of it, and on any given day 95 percent of the 7,500 bad apples are still perfectly in check. Well, that's still 375 heavily armed people in a strange country far from home where they don't speak the language and are regularly subjected to stressful, dangerous conditions.

And this situation persists for seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year, for over four years. Under the circumstances, it would be shocking if there weren't random acts of cruelty happening in Iraq. Understanding this is crucial to understanding military strategy -- in particular, a strategy that depends on every single soldiers doing the right thing all the time is very unlikely to succeed; you just can't make plans grounded on the premise that you have hundreds of thousands of completely perfect people at your disposal. If Bill Kristol really wants to take the view that all soldiers are flawless and anyone who says otherwise is a traitor, that explains a lot about Kristol's inability to every reach the correct conclusions about any substantive national security issues.