The Spin Doctors

I’ve always been intrigued by the “spin doctors” who can make something pretty bad sound pretty good (and vice versa too just by positioning, or stating, it in  a way sympathetic to their interests). All the big organizations do it: The government, business, the churches, and the military. I was involved once with the US Army’s spin; and it went like this:

In 1959 I was commissioned an ROTC 2d Lieutenant and shipped off to to the 6th Armored Calvary, quartered at Ft. Knox. I went through Officer’s Basic Training (AOB #3) and then was assigned to a teaching position at the U.S. Army Armor School. My first class was to be: “The History and Role of Armor.” I was impressed.

I researched and studied and wrote until I was sure I was on the right track. I went back into History and the Bible and found that the first armored vehicles were Assyrian war chariots (700 B.C.). The Assyrians covered their war chariots in heavy leather to ward off arrows in the attack.

I asked questions of senior instructors. Once someone told me that the armored units had never retreated from battle, regardless of the situation. I asked one of the professors about that. He said, “It’s true, armor never has retreated, but they have engaged in retrograde movements.”

“What’s a retrograde movement?

“A retrograde movement is when you advance to the rear.”

Films were very important training aids. Everybody loves a film, and I found a good one. Made by the US Army it was called, “Armor in the Attack!” What a film. It opened with a platoon of tanks, roaring across a field towards the enemy, in a wedge formation, while a basso voiceover intoned: “Utilizing our characteristics of Firepower, Shock Action, and Mobility, we will close with, and destroy the enemy!”

And destroy they did. The tank sped across the battlefield. They blew up empacements, ran over bunkers,  and maintained machine gun fire while popping off targets of opportunity with the big gun. The infantry soldiers were throwing down their weapons and either surrending or running away in great disarray. It was an awesome victory for Armor. The film, and I, were deemed a success. I never forgot that film.

A year or so later, I was assigned to an Infantry unit, “Infantry: The Queen of Battle,” and they started me out as… a training officer. I went back to the Bible and History books for stories of the Hittites, Greeks, Romans, and the armies of David, King of Israel. Infantry has indeed an impressive history. I thought I would tie all this together with a film. I found one in the unit library: “Infantry in the Defense.” I checked it out for a review.

As the film started, I felt a familar sensation. It had the look of the earlier tank film. It looked like the same field, and the voiceover extolling the Infantry sounded like the same guy who narrated the tank film. It was the same movie. Wait, no it wasn’t. This time, as the tanks moved forward, in their wedge formation, guys jumped up from foxholes with bazookas with and stopped the tanks dead in their tracks. In a bordering woods, they had a recoilless rifle, almost a tank gun itself, with which they blew several tanks right off the map. Nobody was running anywhere. The Infantry was counterattacking the tanks! They had grenades, more anti-tank guns, and heavy machine guns. Finally, there was a guy with a flame thrower who set the blooming tanks on fire! It was a complete rout for the tanks. They had to “retrograde” promptly if they wanted to save their hides and their tanks. The music thundered over the action and the magic voice intoned, “Another successful action against enemy armor by the Infantry: The Queen of Battle!”

I thought this through: It was the same field, the same opponents, maybe even filmed the same day. Maybe they flipped a coin to see who won first: Infantry or Armor. The loser would win the second game.

I had been taken in by someone with an agenda. They didn’t lie, the scenes may even have been based on actual events, they just manipulated things. They “spun” them. They told me that portion of the story that made them look good, and omitted anything that made them look bad.

Later, when I was in the business world, I told an advertising guy this story. He smiled and said, “We do that all the time. It’s called selective disclosure. We just tell them what we think they need to know. The stuff that makes us look good or supports our point. Forget the rest. We think we tell the Truth.”

Maybe so, Mr. Spin Doctor, it may be a partial Truth, but it’s not the Whole Truth.

I’ve never taken a film or documentary at face value ever since.

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