May 10, 2008

Fred Kaplan: What a mensch

We here at Abu Muqawama can be pretty harsh on those with an adolescent inability to admit they're wrong (those who know Charlie will find this especially rich, but whatever).   And among the many friends of this fine blog are a number of reporters whose job it is to be right every time.  

One of them is Slate's Fred Kaplan (aside:  check out Slate's Kaplan-Kagan decoder ring).  But you know what?  Last week Fred kinda blew it. In an article celebrating Sec. Gates' thoughts on dissent, he argued that the Army was punishing LTC Paul Yingling by assigning him a detainee ops mission for his current deployment in Iraq.  Turns out:  Fred was wrong.  How do we know this?  Because he told us.

On April 23, I wrote a column that turns out to have been mistaken—that, I've since found out, underestimated the U.S. Army's capacity to reward its creative dissidents...I concluded the column: "[A]s long as junior officers see (as Gates put it) 'principled, creative, reform-minded leaders' like Paul Yingling assigned to lowly positions, the military will not nourish many more."

It turns out that I was wrong on two points. First, contrary to my implication, Yingling's battalion was not sent to prison-guard duty as a punishment. There isn't much demand these days for artillery fire in Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, artillery battalions have to do something. There is a shortage of units to guard prisons. So that is where the 1-21 was sent. The planning officers who make such decisions generally have no idea who commands a particular unit. Generals or their aides don't often reach down into the bowels of this network and redirect small-scale units, like battalions, out of spite. I am persuaded that, in any case, this is not why Yingling's unit got the assignment that it did.

More crucial (and here is where some good news enters the picture), "detainee operations" in Iraq have become a lot more important—and more innovative—than they used to be. With no fanfare, they have become a key element in the broader counterinsurgency campaign. If Yingling was singled out for his current job, it was in recognition—not in grudge-slinging defiance—of his talents. And, in fact, it seems that he was singled out.

What a grown-up.  Charlie's sure this wasn't particularly easy for Fred to write, but this is what professionals do.  They admit when they're wrong, suck it up, and figure out the real story.  Well played, Fred.