Today's Papers

Military Fog-Up

The papers all lead with the deaths of ethnic Albanian refugees who were moving in a convoy along a road in Southern Kosovo, and the hot dispute between NATO and Yugoslavia about who caused them. The fronts feature tough-to-take pictures of bodies strewn among twisted truck parts, and of a man weeping over the sudden loss of his family. The Wall Street Journal implies that the photos come from Serb-controlled videotape. The New York Times refers to Serbian television as a source of photos, but also says that at least one picture of the carnage came from a wire service. A piece on the Los Angeles Times front suggests that such incidents strike at NATO’s moral credibility.

The NYT says that Serbian officials say that NATO planes bombed several groups of refugees, 64 of whom died. USA Today goes high quoting the Serbian president calling the incident a “massacre” by NATO. According to the papers, NATO’s original position was that its planes had only struck military vehicles, breaking off the attack when it saw civilians. Earlier in the day, the papers report, NATO commander Gen. Wesley Clark, said he had evidence that the Serbs had shot up the refugees after NATO pilots had attacked the military vehicles in the convoy. But later on, report the NYT and Washington Post, the Pentagon spokesman said Clark no longer believed this and had no evidence for it anyway. The Pentagon is still interviewing pilots and looking at aircraft video to figure out what happened. Meanwhile, according to the coverage, the Pentagon is saying, based on eyewitness accounts, that a Serbian air attack on refugees might well have occurred Wednesday at another location. But for right now, as the NYT puts it, all that seems certain is that numerous civilians were killed by military fire.

That such “fog of war” episodes seem surprising to civilians, given the new image of America’s precision Nintendo military is the fault of both the Pentagon and the press. Neither has been making much of a distinction between hitting “dialed-in” stationary targets–such as the Interior Ministry building–and tactical, moving targets–such as a tank column. The latter is much more difficult, because it requires both updated coordinates and a positive “friend or foe” identification (in the case of ground targets, usually done visually). Although in the Gulf War, over a quarter of allied casualties were caused by allied forces, this problem of target identification has received relatively little attention inside the military or from the press. Question for the next press briefing: How much money has been spent annually on identification improvements in the past few defense budgets?

The NYT reports that Alta Vista has broken with the general insistence of Net search services that their outputs are purely cognitive and not for sale by now inviting advertisers to pay for the right to be spit out first in a search yield. The Times points out that this is but another example of the Web’s info-commerce merge, exemplified by the recent revelation (by the Times) that has taken to selling publishers the right to prominently placed book reviews.

A WSJ front-pager reports that the nation’s largest legal purveyor of firearms is … Wal-Mart. All but 40 of its stores sell long guns and although the chain stopped stocking handguns in 1993, these can still be ordered from the catalog. The story holds that the respectability of Wal-Mart has provided a continued air of legitimacy for guns.

A Washington tic that makes no sense is brought out in the WP inside piece about Newt Gingrich in repose. The story reveals that the former Speaker is set to make a personal best $3 million in lecture fees this year. In other words, the Washington world of lobbyists, trade groups, and political operatives values his opinion much more now that it is worth much less.