Troops Committing Domestic Violence? Another Useless Anti-Military Report

The Pentagon as social services agency? "The fatalities examined by The New York Times show a military system that tries and sometimes fails to balance the demands of fighting a war with those of eradicating domestic violence."

Apparently unchastened by the negative reaction to its first smear of soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan as "killers," the Times returned Friday withPart 4 of its "War Torn" series, publicized as "A series of articles and multimedia about veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who have committed killings, or been charged with them, after coming home."

In that January 13 story, reporters Deborah Sontag and Lizette Alvarez did somedubious research, without context or reference to the larger population, and unearthed a grand total of 121 cases in which veterans were charged with a killing after coming home from war, claiming that "In many cases, combat trauma and the stress of deployment appeared to play a role."

The latest entry in the series (by the same reporters) appeared on Friday's front page, "When Strains on Military Families Turn Deadly."

The same innumeracy that made the first story worthless is repeated in this 4,500-word followup, as the Times failed to compare domestic violence statistics in the military with the rate of domestic violence among the general population, so as to ascertain whether or not it's actually a specifically military problem or simply a human one.

Alvarez and Sontag surveyed every branch of the armed forces, and it's no surprise that they manage to find several tragic cases of troops who came back from Iraq and killed or beat their spouses or children, as well as apparent failures by the military to perform adequate protective and safety procedures - a system the reporters imply was put under strain when the military actually went to war.

The story opened with the 2004 death of Sgt. Erin Edwards, killed by her husband, a fellow soldier.

The killing of Erin Edwards directly echoed an earlier murder of a military wife that drew far more attention. Almost 10 years ago, at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, a different Army sergeant defied a similar restriction to base, driving out the front gate on his way to a murder almost foretold.

That 1998 homicide, one of several featured in a "60 Minutes" exposé on domestic violence in the military, galvanized a public outcry, Congressional demands for action and the Pentagon's pledge to do everything possible to prevent such violence from claiming more lives.

Yet just as the Defense Department undertook substantial changes, guided by a Congressionally chartered task force on domestic violence that decried a system more adept at protecting offenders than victims, the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq began.

Pentagon officials say that wartime has not derailed their efforts to make substantive improvements in the way that the military tackles domestic violence.

They say they have, for example, offered more parenting and couples classes, provided additional victims advocates and afforded victims greater confidentiality in reporting abuses.

But interviews with members of the task force, as well as an examination of cases of fatal domestic violence and child abuse, indicate that wartime pressures on military families and on the military itself have complicated the Pentagon's efforts.

Here's an illuminating look at the Times' priorities:

"The fatalities examined by The New York Times show a military system that tries and sometimes fails to balance the demands of fighting a war with those of eradicating domestic violence."

To the Times, the Pentagon is apparently one big social services agency with spiffy uniforms, with "fighting a war" just one of many duties to be balanced.

The Times finds sources that make its case that the war is causing domestic violence to increase, but again without providing useful comparative statistics.

Deployment to war, with its long separations, can put serious stress on military families. And studies have shown that recurrent deployments heighten the likelihood of combat trauma, which, in turn, increases the risk of domestic violence.

"The more trauma out there, the more likely domestic violence is," said Dr. Jacquelyn C. Campbell, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing who also was a member of the Pentagon task force.

The Times examined several cases in which mental health problems caused or exacerbated by war pushed already troubled families to a deadly breaking point.


Dr. Campbell, the former task force member, said the task force had recommended periodic anonymous surveys to ascertain the full extent of domestic violence. She also said that she believed the "true incidence" of domestic violence had probably increased as a result of service members returning from Iraq with combat trauma, which can exacerbate family violence.

Bruce Kesler has more on the Times' use of statistics, and concluded:

It is, again, interesting that the NYT's Part 4 of "War Torn" is seemingly downplayed in placement, and stretches to treat domestic and spousal abuse, failing to come up with a scandal that would merit the extensive amount of ink devoted to it.

What seems clear is that the military appears to have devoted comparably far more energies to dealing with the problems than has civilian life, which might have provided the New York Times with a truly interesting article, rather than such an incomplete one. The NYT's certainly had enough space and words to have done so, if that were its purpose.