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Cooking the books.

Cooking the Books

Last week, Gen. William Westmoreland's $120 million libel suit against CBS went to trial in Federal District Court in New York City. A key issue in the case is whether the general conspired to deceive President Johnson during the Vietnam War, by revising intelligence estimates of enemy strength downward, as a CBS documentary reported in 1982. Although the trial will deal with CBS and Vietnam, perhaps some light can be shed on the general subject of military mathematics by a much less momentous instance of military fact-tampering which occurred when I was in the Army. Rather than the Tet offensive, it involved the battle of the flu.

I was a private first class working as a clerk/typist in the medical company of the 53rd Infantry Regiment, 71st Division, stationed at Fort Richardson, just outside Anchorage. Part of my job was to prepare periodic reports quantifying the diseases contracted by the men of the 53rd: forty-eight cases of V.D., six cases of frostbite, twenty-three cases of influenza and so forth. One day the company commander, a Regular Army captain, and the only nonmedical officer in the company, appeared in the infirmary, where all the doctors had their offices. Who the hell was responsible for preparing the latest figures on the number of influenza cases in the last quarter? he wanted to know. And more to the point, why were the lieutenants of the 53rd making influenza diagnoses when the laboratory lacked the appropriate facilities for definitively arriving at such a finding? "What we know and all we know is that these men had upper-respiratory infections and that's what our report should reflect!' he bellowed. "And that's an order!'

So despite the previous practice of listing influenza cases as influenza, it fell to me to convert scores of influenza entries into scores of upper-respiratory infection entries, and following that, to type up the quarterly report tabulating what turned out to be a drastic drop in the number of influenza cases from the previous quarter.

It wasn't until some months later that I discovered the reason for the 53rd's newly imposed diagnostic caution. For the previous six months the Army had been experimenting with influenza shots, and Fort Richardson was one of the few posts that had been given the shots where the number of cases had gone up rather than down. The solution? The revisionist history of influenza.

In the matter of General Westmoreland's alleged premature revisionism of the history of the Vietnam War, the issues are far more important, involving the conduct of the war and freedom of the press. Thus far, legal expenses on both sides have amounted to $5 million, and the lawyers' desk timers are ticking away as you read this. A star-studded cast has been lined up to appear on the witness stand, including former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, former Deputy Special Assistant for National Security Affairs Walt Rostow and former Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms.

Recalling my Army days, it struck me that an important witness was missing from the roster. When it comes to the question of whether or not Westmoreland was playing the old Army numbers game, the one person in a position to know is the private first class whose job it was to fudge the record. If I were the defense lawyer that's who I would call, rather than the best and the brightest.
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Title Annotation:William Westmoreland libel case and military fact-tampering
Author:Navasky, Victor S.
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Oct 20, 1984
Words:575
Previous Article:Subject to debate.
Next Article:Berkeley memories.
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