Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sloppy shorthand

Hed writers, be careful when you reach for the shorthand shelf. You might come away with an error like this one:

Tough resistance surprises Israelis
Young soldiers used to ragtag PLO are caught off-guard by Hezbollah

... After years of battling untrained and ill-equipped Palestinian militants, Israel's young soldiers now find themselves fighting a disciplined, well-armed Hezbollah force putting up surprisingly strong resistance.

"Ragtag PLO" is a comfortable old cliche in the vein of "war-torn Lebanon" (and the newer "restive Anbar province"). Trouble is, this particular piece never specifies what brand of Palestinians the soldiers had in mind:

Many have spent time fighting Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Few considered them worthy adversaries.

There might be a reason for that. Several Palestinian groups of varying motive and ideology are likely candidates, but the PLO proper -- which signed its Declaration of Principles with Israel when the soldiers quoted in this story were about 8 -- isn't a very good one. By turning a loose generalization into a specific reference, the hed writer has created an error that can't be blamed on the writer. Moral(s): Don't guess. And stay away from the cliche shelf anyway.

The ragtag-force-stands-and-fights bit, of course, isn't particularly new. In the neighborhood in question, you could date it to Karameh. Or you could reach back a few years before that to see how the Ragtag Force manages to surprise the assembled experts:

Josephus knew that the invincible might of Rome was chiefly due to unhesitating obedience and to practice in arms. He despaired of providing similar instruction, demanding as it did a long period of training; but he saw that the habit of obedience resulted from the number of their officers and he now reorganized his army on the Roman model, appointing more junior commanders than before.

You can imagine what the Anderson Copernicus CCCLX show looked like when Jotapata fell.


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