Sunday, May 6, 2007


I have a love-hate relationship with opinion polls and marketing surveys. On the one hand, I'm fascinated by them. On the other hand, many of them are either poorly designed or subject to such various interpretations that they are more a pain in the rear than anything else.

Then there's the laziness of our "press corps" in reporting on them. Bush's approval ratings had to get into the low thirties and stay there for a while for the press to stop routinely referring to him as a "popular President". Now the advocates of High Broderist bipartisanship, in and out of the press, keep lecturing the Democrats on how unpopular it is for the Democrats to be all insistent on putting some kind of limits on the Iraq War. Greg Sargent gives us an example of the latest, along with the results of a recent Pew poll (
Memo To Media: Public Supports Dems' Confronting Of White House TPMCafe 05/05/07):

Do you think Democratic leaders in Congress are going too far or not far enough in challenging George W. Bush's policies in Iraq, or are they handling this about right?

Too far 23%
Not far enough 40%
About right 30%
Don't know/Refused 7%
If I'm going to concentrate on a poll and what it means, I need to see the question itself. In this case, it seems pretty clear that a reasonable interpretation of this one is that 70% - that's over two thirds - of the American public either think the Democrats are doing the right amount of antiwar activity right now or that they need to go farther.

This is also a widely-reported story:
Many troops in Iraq lack ethics, U.S. finds
International Herald Tribune/AP 05/05/07. When you look more closely in this ones, the disturbing findings remain disturbing but should be taken cautiously. And there is a section on soldier morale that seems to indicate that a favorite ideological claim of the war cheerleaders is not very soundly based in reality. Some of the more sensational findings include the following in the AP report:

Only 47 percent of the soldiers and 38 percent of Marines said noncombatants should be treated with dignity and respect. ...

About 10 percent of soldiers and Marines reported mistreating civilians or damaging property when it was not necessary. Mistreatment includes hitting or kicking a civilian.

Forty-four percent of Marines and 41 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to save the life of a soldier or Marine.

Thirty-nine percent of Marines and 36 percent of soldiers said torture should be allowed to gather important information from insurgents.
The lead paragraph says:

In a survey of U.S. combat troops in Iraq, fewer than half of marines and a little more than half of soldiers said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian.
AP reports of the survey, "The overall study was the fourth in a series done by a special mental health advisory team since 2003 aimed at assessing the well-being of forces serving in Iraq." More specifically, the report is called Mental Health Advisory Team (MHAT IV) Operation Irai Freedom 05-07 Final Report 11/17/06 by the Office of the Surgeon-Multinational Force Iraq and Office of the Surgeon General - US Army Medical Command. Here's the MHAT IV Army site for the report.

This CNN news report on it,
Study: Anxiety, depression, acute stress in combat troops 05/04/07, highlights the health implications for the US soldiers: "The latest Pentagon survey assessing the mental health of troops in Iraq found one-third of soldiers and Marines in high levels of combat report anxiety, depression and acute stress."

The "Battlefield Ethics" section begins on page 34 of the MHAT IV report, which is where the questions on treatment of prisoners and noncombatants are discussed. The report makes the following cautions about the ethics results:

Again, it must be kept in mind that this is the first time these survey questions have been used, thus it is impossible to compare the findings from this MHAT IV assessment of Soldiers and Marines with any other group of military personnel. Rather, these findings must be viewed as a starting point, a snapshot, for how Soldiers and Marines view Iraqi insurgents and non-combatants, how these views translate into battlefield ethical actions, and how violations of these ethics are reported.
I see this convention more and more in Army publications of using "Soldiers" with a capital S instead of the lower-case "soldiers" that is conventional English usage. It may be an attempt to show inter-service parity with the conventionally-capitalized "Marines". Still, it's kind of silly.

I'm not in the least inclined to minimize misbehavior or war crimes by American troops. They're wrong, they're damaging to the victims and to the United States, and they can fundamentally undermine the mission in a situation like the Iraq War. But in looking more closely at the survey report, it seems to me that some of the more sensational findings may be "softer" than they might appear on first glance.

As one example among several, page 40 shows a chart of results finding that significantly greater numbers of soldiers who had handled human remains were likely to report having damaged Iraqi property "unnecessarily" or hit/kicked noncombatants "unnecessarily". But what does "unnecessarily" mean in this context? Does it mean the respondent is saying he himself did one of these acts on his own initiative just for the hell of it, or because he was angry? Or does he mean that some operation of which he was a part destroyed a building or hustled civilians off the streets, in a situation where he judges it to have been unnecessary? Unless the question clearly defined "unnecessary" as outside the scope of the rules of engagement or otherwise specified, I'm not sure what the results on that tell us. Even the difference in responses between those who handled human remains and those who hadn't could be interpreted various ways. Does it mean they are more likely to go outside their own rules of engagement? Or might it mean that soldiers who see more combat are more likely to have handled human remains and also that they've
become more cynical about the war, as in, "this whole damn thing is unnecessary"?

Because it is an important subject, this particular ethics survey seems a pretty thin strand tohang any broad conclusions about soldiers' conduct on.

Many of the other survey questions have more of a track record and seem to be more solid. I was particularly struck by the findings about morale on pages 16-19. To hear our war fans talk, having Congress and the public debate the war is devastating to the morale of our troops in Iraq. So you expect to hear that the biggest morale problem is Dirty Hippies Back Home Criticizing The War, right?

You would be incorrect. By their rating scale, morale for both the Army and the Marines appears to be less than optimal. They found that the factors most affecting individual and group morale included deployment tempo; petty base camp rules; lack of fairness in assessing "morale, welfare and recreational (MWR) assets", such as the amount of R&R time burned up in traveling to and from Kuwait.

The focus group questions about morale (see Section II of the form in
Appendix G) don't specifically ask about antiwar activity in the US. But they do include some open-ended inquiries like, "What can your leaders do to help maintain your well-being?" While apparently not a lot of them responded with, "Get me the hell out of here", they also did seem to have received a lot of complaints about the dirty hippie Democrats criticizing the war, either. The report doesn't include war criticize as being a signficant factor in morale. But it did include complaints like this:

An example of one of the most visible "FOB [forward operating base] rules" involved the wearing of the Army Physical Fitness Training Uniform (i.e., PT uniform). While some Soldiers were allowed to wear the tan, Army Combat Uniform (ACU) t-shirt with the black Army PT shorts, other Soldiers were not; while some Soldiers were allowed to wear their Army PT uniform into the dining facility, others were not; while some Soldiers were allowed to wear their Army PT uniform when not on duty, others were not. One unit that did allow Soldiers to wear either the tan ACU t-shirt or the Army gray t-shirt with their PT shorts mandated that when two or more Soldiers were walking together that they had to be in the same uniform. What rules Soldiers had to follow in the wearing of the Army PT uniform depended on both the unit and the basecamp, often with different rules existing within the same unit and on the same basecamp. Neither Soldiers nor Marines saw the link between the wearing of the PT uniform and combat readiness.
Hippie Democrats undercutting morale? Apparently not.

Getting to wear your PT uniform in the dining facility? Apparently doing much more damage to morale than the degenerate hippies.


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