Major General Harold Greene, the first U.S. general to die in combat since Vietnam, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 14. At the time of the funeral, President Obama was on the course at the Vineyard Golf Club in Edgartown, Mass. As the president vacationed, the question of whether he should have attended the funeral set off an occasionally ugly, and certainly instructive, series of events on the Internet.
On Friday morning, the blog Legal Insurrection posted an item headlined "Guess who was missing at funeral of highest ranking officer killed in combat since Vietnam War." The post included a tweet by Matt Drachenberg who wrote:
Highest ranking officer killed in combat since Vietnam. At the funeral, no POTUS, no VPOTUS, no SecDef. Respect: You're doing it wrong.— Matt (@mdrache) August 15, 2014
The Legal Insurrection post featured another tweet, this one from Morris Davis, a retired Air Force colonel who from 2005 to 2007 served as the chief prosecutor for military commissions at the terrorist detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Davis tweeted the following:
Davis' tweet referred to Maj. Gen. John A.B. Dillard — that last U.S. general killed in combat — who died when his helicopter was shot down in Vietnam on May 12, 1970. Davis' tweet also referred to Lt. Gen. Timothy Maude, who was killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the Pentagon. According to Davis, the Dillard funeral was attended by then-President Richard Nixon, and the Maude funeral was attended by then-President George W. Bush. Obama, Davis said, broke that tradition by skipping General Greene's funeral.
As it turned out, both Drachenberg's tweet and Davis' tweet were wrong. Drachenberg's had an error which he later corrected. Davis' was an intentional falsehood, about which he later boasted. Both ended up ricocheting around the Internet.
I played a role in that. On Saturday morning, I tweeted, without comment, a link to the original Legal Insurrection article. A short time later, I added the following:
White House should explain why neither President Obama nor Vice President Biden nor Sec of Defense Hagel attended Gen. Greene's funeral.— Byron York (@ByronYork) August 16, 2014
I was wrong. It turns out Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did, in fact, attend the Greene funeral, a fact I should have known. Before sending out the tweet, I made a couple of perfunctory checks to see whether Hagel had attended, didn't see him in the news coverage I read and passed on the information without further checking. If I had looked into it just a bit more, I would have seen, for example, a Stars & Stripes article that specifically mentioned Hagel's presence. Once I saw that, I sent out two tweets correcting the mistake. (As for Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, it was true that neither had attended.)
The Davis tweet was another matter altogether. I did not pass it on, but it was included in the Legal Insurrection post to which I had linked. Davis stated definitively that Nixon had attended the Dillard funeral in 1970 and Bush had attended the Maude funeral in 2001, a "tradition" of presidential attendance that Obama "bucked" by ignoring the Greene funeral. As it turned out, none of that was true, and Davis, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who played an important role in the War on Terror and who today teaches law at Howard University, knew it when he wrote it.
Curious about what Davis had said, I looked for any sign that Nixon had attended the Dillard funeral. I went to the Nixon Library website, which has posted the minute-by-minute White House logs of Nixon's activities. They're very detailed; if Nixon had gone to the general's funeral, it would have been listed. I looked through the month after Dillard's death and found no evidence Nixon had attended. Likewise, it turned out Bush did not attend the Maude funeral.
That sent me back to Davis' Twitter page. Who is he? Not long after sending out the false tweet, Davis — who on his Twitter biography describes himself as "battling faux-patriots one comment at a time"— began bragging that he had fooled "haters" and "RWNJs" — that is, Right Wing Nut Jobs — into passing on the false Nixon/Bush information without bothering to check it out, all because of their sheer hatred of Obama. First, Davis tweeted this:
My fallacy tweet (Nixon & Bush didn't attend funerals) retweeted 225+ times by #Obama haters w/out checking "facts." pic.twitter.com/rJqlDtKCGO— Col. Morris Davis (@ColMorrisDavis) August 17, 2014
Not long after, when some like-minded followers praised Davis for fooling the "haters," he responded:
@jsc1835 @MikeH7 Thanks! It's pretty funny that the RWNJs keep retweeting me not realizing (1) it was sarcasm and (2) it's not true.— Col. Morris Davis (@ColMorrisDavis) August 17, 2014
On Sunday, I sent a note to Davis asking why, given the credibility that comes with his military career and law school position, he had distributed information he knew to be false. As he had in his earlier tweet, Davis claimed the falsehood was "sarcasm." Here is his response, in full:
A couple of days ago I saw several people observe that President Obama was somewhere between disrespectful and treasonous for not attending the funeral of Major General Greene, which triggered the usual flood of anti-Obama hate that is prolific in some right-wing circles. I knew from my 25 years of military service that it wasn't common for Presidents to attend military funerals and I figured this fell into the same category as Obama is a communist because he was seen without an American flag pin on his jacket lapel or Obama hates the military because he didn't go to Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day; in other words, I knew he was getting bashed again for doing exactly the same thing most of his Republican predecessors had done in similar circumstances. To note the hypocrisy of the Obama-haters, I used sarcasm and tweeted that he had broken with the tradition Presidents Nixon and Bush 43 set when they attended the funerals of the last General killed in the Vietnam War and the highest ranking officer killed in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, which, of course, neither of them had done. And in the right-wing's bash Obama glee, my tweet has been retweeted a couple of hundred times without anyone taking two minutes to Google to see if it's true. It's similar to a Chinese news agency reprinting that Kim Jong-un had been named the sexiest man alive without checking and finding that The Onion is a satirical site. It's also a sad commentary on how gullible people can be and how willing they are to latch onto "news" that supports the narrative they want.
Just to summarize the facts in this convoluted affair: Hagel did attend the Greene funeral. Obama and Biden did not. Nixon did not attend the Dillard funeral, and Bush did not attend the Maude funeral. There is no "tradition" of presidential attendance at generals' funerals that Obama "bucked." The Hagel misinformation (passed on erroneously by me) came from Drachenberg's tweet, amplified in the Legal Insurrection post. The Nixon and Bush misinformation was a deliberate falsehood spread by Davis.
There are several lessons to be drawn from the affair. The first, and most important, is to be skeptical about everything one sees on the Internet and make a good-faith effort to ensure that information one passes on is accurate. I will certainly redouble my efforts on that score in the future. The second lesson is that when one makes a mistake, correct it as quickly as possible, more than once if necessary. And the final lesson, narrower but still important, is: Never trust a word Morris Davis says; it might be "sarcasm."