There is a minor kerfuffle in the right wing blogs about Michael Bellesiles being caught publishing fiction as truth.

The right wing has it in for Bellesiles, since he once faked data on gun ownership in early America, trying to prove no one owned guns then (and ergo the second amendment was meant to refer to the National Guard, not to private ownership of guns). So there are a lot of people out there to “get” him when he writes.

What is interesting is that, when he wrote a very nice essay published in the Chronicles of Higher Education, that no one at that magazine bothered to check his facts, or to clarify that the essay was fiction loosely based on a “real” story.

The story, about teaching military history and watching a student deteriorate in sorrow after his brother was injured in the Middle East, is touching.

Yet the story doesn’t quite pass the “smell” test.

Most teachers, seeing a student missing class and assignments, and whose behavior is deteriorating, would tell the student to get counseling or quit. Instead, we have a sympathetic teacher who believes an elaborate story that tugs on his heart, and the teacher tells him to take off, but does not tell him if he has family troubles to drop the class because he is failing.

Uh, did it never occur to the teacher that the student might be (how do I say this nicely?) Lying through his teeth to get a pass?

But never mind. It’s a nice story.

 Ernesto came to me and said that he could not attend class, as his brother had been shot in the head by a sniper and was in critical condition.

Yes, pretty bad.

But this is the part that made my pooperdetection alarm go off. It seems that Ernesto continued to miss class and assignments for several weeks:

  I hoped that Ernesto’s presence meant that his brother had recovered, only to be surprised to hear that Javier was still in danger, his condition so serious that the doctors feared moving him to the military hospital in Germany.


It is the most serious people, especially those with brain damage, who get transferred.

Usually severe head injuries require transport to specialty hospitals with neurosurgeons and rehabilitation facilities. In Iraq or Afghanistan, this means transfer to Germany, and probably another transfer to an American stateside military hospital for definitive treatment, including rehabilitation

There might be a small delay in transfer during the first few days, especially if the military hospital has a Neurosurgical unit, but not transferring for weeks doesn’t make sense.

From an article at the Journal of Surgical Research:

..(Air Evacuation) utilizing Critical Care Air Transport Teams has become a standard of care practice following battlefield injury, to quickly and safely transport critically injured soldiers to more sophisticated echelons of care.

The article discusses the pros and cons of immediate transfer. Transfer during the acute phase, when cerebral edema is common, is a clinical judgment, which balances the need for specialized care versus the danger of increasing the edema due to low oxygen/low pressure during transport.

Yet Neurological injuries often require repeat surgery, and intensive care to prevent complications (aspiration pneumonia, bedsores, respirator adjustment, physical therapy) during the sub acute phase (i.e. first few weeks) and then more specialized care (physical and occupational therapy) during the long rehabilitation from such an injury.

From “Intratheater Transfer and Transport of Level II and III Critical Care Trauma Patients”

The movement of severely injured patients is a critical event requiring appropriate timing and attention to minute details. To determine the optimal timing of transfer, clinicians must balance the benefit of resources at the receiving facility, against the risks inherent in moving a critical patient who requires ongoing resuscitative care.

The key to the paragraph is “resuscitative care”. If the patient is in shock, you treat the shock, put in the IV lines, place chest tubes, stop the bleeding, and start the antibiotics for sepsis before transfer, so they don’t bleed to death or die from shock during the plane trip.

But “resuscitative” refers to acute trauma.

In other words, doctors might delay the transfer of an acute injury until the patient is stable, but the thought of not transferring a severely injured soldier for weeks goes against standard medical practice.

Are we supposed to think that “Ernesto’s brother” was kept at a lower level hospital for weeks because he was “too sick to transfer”?

It gets worse

That afternoon I asked my teaching assistant, a Marine veteran named Joe, to talk with Ernesto…Joe spoke regularly with Ernesto, advising him on his final paper and on dealing with the military bureaucracy.

Yes, the military bureaucracy is a mess. Yet I wonder why Joe-the-teaching-assistant didn’t suspect problems with “Ernesto’s story”. Did the teaching assistant merely give him names and numbers? Or did he help him with the paperwork (which would be proof that there really was truth in the story)?

Did no one suspect a problem with the story?
Big Journalism did, and actually searched the records to find a casualty or death that fit the time line, and did not.

The “Volock Conspiracy Blog”, a law blog, has more details, and the blogosphere fuss raised some eyebrows.

As a result, the Chronicals editors checked out the story, and found it was fiction. They cleared Bellesiles of lying: he successfully claimed that publishing these falsehoods wasn’t his fault: His student lied.

Subsequently the student told us that he had fabricated several details in the story he had told Mr. Bellesiles and The Chronicle. The student said he knew a soldier who he believed had died in Afghanistan, but he said the person was not his half-brother. The student had no explanation for why the name was not on the military’s casualty lists.

Well, I can think of a few reasons why a student might lie to a teacher when he is missing class and failing the subject.

Mr. Bellesiles naively believed a liar. Indeed, he seems to still believe the lies of his student. And what is worse, he justifies the story because he published it for a “good” reason: to encourage the clueless to have sympathy for those who serve overseas.

Asked for a response, Mr. Bellesiles said he was saddened that his student had altered the details of a personal tragedy and that he regretted that he had unknowingly passed on a story that was not accurate. “But I hope that no one mistakes the point of my article in calling for greater sympathy and support in our colleges for veterans and the families of those who have suffered loss in our current wars.”

Well, thank you, oh great master, for being so kind and gracious to we peons who have served in the military, or whose loved ones have done so.

We always like it when those who think they are so superior to us write articles painting us as clueless victims needing sympathy, not as men and women who did what had to be done in the necessary wars against some very nasty people of the twentieth century.

With such a condescending attitude toward the American military, one wonders what he is teaching in his class on “military history”.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines. She blogs at MakaipaBlog.

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