Effect Measure

The Pentagon’s chief medical bully

Lecturers, even at a university like Harvard, are pretty far down the food chain. Even if, like Linda Bilmes an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School, you were once an Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton Administration and co-authored a paper recently with a Nobel Laureate economist. Lecturers are the kind of vulnerable faculty a call to their Dean might harm. At least the Pentagon seemed to think so, because after chewing her out over the phone they called her Dean to complain about a “pretty dry” paper she gave at the Allied Social Sciences Association meeting in Chicago. Maybe it wasn’t the paper itself. Maybe it was summarizing the contents in an op ed piece in The Los Angeles Times. Whatever.

Here’s some of the backstory, as recounted by Scott Jaschik in Inside Higher Education:

The story begins with a paper Bilmes wrote last year with Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Columbia University professor and Nobel laureate in economics. In their study, they found that the Bush administration has seriously underestimated the economic costs of the war in Iraq. After the study was publicized, Bilmes was approached by some experts on veterans’ benefits who said that one cost of the war hadn’t received enough attention in their work (or from the government): the costs of caring for veterans injured in the conflict.


The central argument of the new Bilmes paper is that so many soldiers are being injured that the costs of caring for them over their lifetimes is likely to be $350 billion, or up to twice that, depending on how long the war lasts. The high cost is the result of huge advances in military medicine that have greatly reduced the chances that a soldier injured in Iraq will die. As a result, the ratio of injuries to deaths — 16:1 by her estimate — is higher than in any other war in U.S. history. (By comparison, in Vietnam the ratio was 2.8:1 and in World War II the ratio was 1.6:1.) (Inside Higher Ed)

Bilmes also maintains the current veterans’ care system is not equipped to handle this enormous cost and demand. Obviously this is not the story the Pentagon wants to tell and they immediately accused Bilmes of “gross distortion” and error. Her estimate of Iraq War injured, 50,000 plus, is twice the Pentagon’s estimate of 22,000. When there is a scholarly disagreement, your next step is call the Dean, right? When the Dean asked Bilmes where she got the figure, she told him: from the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA), which in turn gets its data from the Pentagon.

The Pentagon soon remedied that, claiming the DVA misunderstood the data and forcing it to change their website to make it consistent with the Pentagon’s. Problem solved. Not quite.

It turns out the difference in numbers stems from the fact that the higher number includes not only those injured in combat but also those injured in accidents and other causes. These on-the-job injuries in a war zone are as big as the combat injuries and are all entitled to the same care as a combat injury. So they count in the economic analysis. Without them, the costs of meeting the government’s obligations would be underestimated by half.

The Pentagon spokesperson, who alleged Bilmes “grossly distored” the data in an email to the reporter, was unfazed, claiming that Bilmes didn’t make clear the difference between her (and the DVA’s) injury figures and the Pentagon’s. But it turns out she did, citing the difference in the introduction of the paper and giving the details in a footnote. Bilmes is understandably pissed:

To Bilmes, what’s infuriating is that the Pentagon is saying she is wrong on points of fact when they aren’t dealing with what she actually wrote. “I have no problem with them calling me or anyone to talk about my paper,” she said. “But what I think is inappropriate is that they seem to be responding without having read my paper.”

While the Pentagon was entitled to its view of which figure of injured it wanted to focus on, she said, it was also unfair for it to object to others’ arguing that other numbers were worth examining. “I think it is inappropriate for the Pentagon to put pressure on a junior faculty member doing a piece of scholarly research on the somewhat data-driven subject on disability costs just because they may want to have a different number in public.”

Maybe she has no problem with their calling the Dean if they had read the paper, but I do. It is unseemly, bullying, mean spirited behavior. The blame for this kind of thuggish behavior should be laid at the foot of Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, who did the telephoning. Windenwerder is notorious. He has no shame nor limits in how much water he will carry for this discredited administration, whether its rationalizing and enabling the participation of medical personnel in torture or pushing for mandatory anthrax vaccination for military personnel. No surprise he should be hit man in this minor academic drama. As we are learning in the Scooter Libby trial, any deviation from the Bush-Cheny script about the Great Patriotic War has to be punished.

Meanwhile, to Harvard’s credit, they are featuring Bilmes’s work on their home page. This just shows that these guys can’t even bully competently.

Being a thug and being a doctor aren’t mutually exclusive, as Winkenwerder shows. What a jerk. Go ahead. Call my Dean.


  1. #1 Crow
    February 1, 2007

    This kind of bullying is disgusting, and deserves to be seen in the light of day that you have placed it.

    Good on you for posting it, and good on Harvard for resisting their tactics as well.


  2. #2 crfullmoon
    March 5, 2007

    what a legacy

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