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Four Syllables, Starts With M, Ends With Uh-Oh

"Mercenary" proved incendiary on William Arkin's blog. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 12, 2007

William M. Arkin, a military analyst who writes a blog for The Washington Post's Web site, says he knew that his criticism of American troops would be "highly inflammatory."

He got that part right.

Arkin, invoking an NBC report on soldiers expressing disappointment with dwindling public support for the Iraq war, wrote late last month that it was "an ugly reminder of the price we pay for a mercenary -- oops sorry, volunteer -- force that thinks it is doing the dirty work."

It was a land mine of a word and sparked an explosion of criticism, much of it on the right. Bill O'Reilly, who had a Fox News producer ambush Arkin in a parking lot, called his remarks "disgraceful" and said that The Post and NBC News, where Arkin works as an analyst, will be "forever tainted" by the incident.

Arkin, who apologized on the blog for his "blasphemy," says in an interview: " 'Mercenary' is a very strong term. If all this has been precipitated by one word, there's not a question in my mind I could have avoided this by not using that word." He says he was trying to be "sarcastic" and "iconoclastic" and to make the point that a professional fighting force cannot dismiss public sentiment on how wars should be fought.

Jim Brady, executive editor of, says the use of the word "mercenary" "was a mistake. It made it through the editing process, which is unfortunate. We certainly apologize for using it on the site. . . . I know it offended a lot of people, but I don't think it's something he should be fired for."

NBC does "not condone" Arkin's online comments and welcomes his apology, network spokeswoman Allison Gollust says. NBC's parent company, General Electric, says it "strongly condemns" the Arkin remarks as "grossly unfair."

This is an entirely self-inflicted wound. The word "mercenary" is clearly insulting to the young men and women who risk their lives in war zones. Whatever larger point Arkin was trying to make was obliterated by his own rhetorical ammunition.

Arkin also wrote in the Jan. 30 posting: "So, we pay the soldiers a decent wage, take care of their families, provide them with housing and medical care and vast social support systems and ship obscene amenities into the war zone for them, we support them in every possible way, and their attitude is that we should in addition roll over and play dead, defer to the military and the generals and let them fight their war, and give up our rights and responsibilities to speak up because they are above society?"

Arkin is now trying to shift the debate to his detractors in what he calls a "polarized and hate-filled America." Arkin says he has received thousands of e-mail protests from people who have not read his words but were reacting to critics who "said I spat on the troops. . . . The number of death threats and over-the-top vile crap is a little bit daunting."

Arkin, who has consulted for the military, is a controversial figure who was long associated with the liberal group Human Rights Watch. He has drawn fire more than once for disclosing classified information. Arkin now teaches at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

On the "O'Reilly Factor" last week, Fox producer Jesse Watters was seen confronting Arkin as he tried to load gear into his car. "How could you say what you said?" Watters demanded. "I mean, don't you think it was really hurtful and harmful to the military families, to the soldiers serving in Iraq?"

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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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