It has been about a month since Rolling Stone published an article by Mark Boal called “The Kill Team: How U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan Murdered Innocent Civilians” and the subsequent reaction on author Michael Yon’s blog titled “Calling BULLS*** on Rolling Stone.”
Yet, perhaps because of the continued unrest around the globe, I can’t get the story (or the reaction) out of my head. Apparently I’m not the only one, since comments are still being posted and there are more than 1,600 of them on Boal’s article alone as of this writing. If one brings some thoughtful perspective, it is possible to find both pieces compelling and enlightening even though they are ostensibly at odds. But in today’s climate where confirmation bias runs rampant, it seems that’s a big ‘if.’
Confirmation bias is, according to Wikipedia, “a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true.” We have this way of justifying our opinions based on how we select and interpret what we watch or read.
So if you believe liberals or liberal publications are generally anti-military, you might see this Rolling Stone piece as making your case. Or, if you believe all war is wrong, perhaps you view this article as supporting your contention that it is indeed harmful.
Actually, Boal wrote a detailed, corroborated story about a handful of rogue American soldiers who have in fact been found guilty of crimes -- including murder -- in Afghanistan.
“One idea, proposed half in jest, was to throw candy out of a Stryker vehicle as they drove through a village and shoot the children who came running to pick up the sweets,” Boal writes.
(I challenge you to get that image out of your head any time soon.)
But what also happened was Rolling Stone ran the story with accompanying video, one of which is called “Motorcycle Kill” and it shows American soldiers gunning down two Afghan men on a motorcycle; they may have been armed. It startled me to watch it while sitting in my cushy urban apartment because nothing could have prepared me for the realness of the gunfire. (For the record, I was for U.S. military action in Afghanistan and against going into Iraq.)
“Rolling Stone commits a literary ‘crime’ by deceptively entwining this normal combat video with the Kill Team story,” author Michael Yon writes in his blog post.
He has a point. He goes on to explain the very real conditions in a war zone, including the nuance of reaction time and often not knowing if indeed the potential threat is indeed a threat. Sometimes it’s a split-second judgment call. And, perhaps most importantly, a reminder that this is our soldiers’ precarious day-in, day-out existence. Note that Yon is very specifically objecting to the placement of the video, not the content, per se, of the article about ‘The Kill Team.’
That is why I part with him on the boycott of Rolling Stone advertisers that he--and in turn, some of his readers--call for. Had RS not augmented its extensive reporting on the small group of extremist soldiers with a video that is unrelated to those soldiers, one has to wonder if there would be any basis for criticism at all. This is a documented account of murder by U.S. soldiers and in no way indicts “all” our men and women in uniform.
So many of the knee-jerk reactions shine a light on how far we’ll go to make a case for our own beliefs. The story does not support pacifism. And those who are so pro-military as to believe that nothing negative should ever be reported about those in uniform are just as misguided. Try to pull back and look at what is essentially one snapshot of war in a massive photo album.
As a journalist, this comment to the RS piece particularly caught my attention:
“Congratulations Rolling Stone, you have totally presented ONE SIDE of an issue without presenting any information regarding the thousands of soldiers who are nothing like the people on your article.”
So using this logic, if I write about a rogue cop, does that mean I don’t appreciate and have immense gratitude to the police officer who caught a crack addict climbing in my window one day? Or the ones who risk their lives on every shift? Do we have an obligation to only highlight the heroes?
Bruce Springsteen knows a thing or two about that. When in 2000 he wrote and performed American Skin (41 Shots) about the Amadou Diallo shooting, the New York City PBA was vocal in its objection and called for a boycott. I saw Springsteen perform the song at Madison Square Garden and nothing about it suggested to me he was dissing all cops. In fact, it was a powerful commentary about race in America. But for some, all his other music (and altruism) in support of the working man or policemen was dismissed.
It’s like when people object to reporting about the child abuse problems in the Catholic Church because it leaves out the caring, community-minded priests doing spiritual work. Does bringing one to light negate the other? Who but a short-sighted person would then equate all priests as abusers? Are we really supposed to add a line of qualification stating that while Father Joe managed to abuse 10 boys in his tenure at a diocese, there were a dozen other priests who gave inspired sermons and raised money for charity?
So much of this is not just about confirmation bias, but loyalty and what it really means. Why do we love to put ‘blind’ in front of it as if that’s a good thing? Does anyone reading this have a desire to be blind in any other context?
Love of brotherhood/sisterhood, country, family, even another human being comes with a measure of ‘blindness.’ But isn’t there something to be said for a more mature kind, one that brings with it the ability to love and be loyal, flaws and all?
The great majority of our military is making possible even the freedoms we all gripe about every day. I cannot fathom the kind of courage it takes to sign up for what our soldiers do and the places they go.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some scary law breakers in the bunch.
Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.