NBC’s Body Armor Embarrassment
By Tom Donnelly
The Weekly Standard | June 26, 2007
ONE OF THE RECURRING themes of press coverage of the Long War, and particularly the conflict in Iraq, is that soldiers are victims. According to this trope, soldiers and Marines are sacrificing themselves in a cause already lost, by an administration that cares little for the men and women in uniform. The proof of this last proposition was demonstrated to the media’s satisfaction long ago, and confirmed for them in former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s proclamation that we went to war with the force we had rather than the one we’d liked to have.
Exhibit number one in the press’s case for the prosecution was the question of armor protection for soldiers–not only armor for trucks and Humvees but individual body armor. Facts have never been allowed to get in the way of these stories–nor have questions about the tradeoffs between mobility and protection –and, if a recent report by NBC’s Lisa Myers is any indication, they still aren’t. In Myers’s report, done in the classic “I-team” TV investigative style, NBC paid for an independent ballistics test comparing something called Dragon Skin body armor (so-called because it is made up of overlapping ceramic discs) with the Interceptor body armor now being worn by soldiers.
Far from being a case of independent investigation, the report smells more like a piece of special pleading. Dragon Skin is made by Pinnacle Body Armor, whose chief executive, Murray Neal, has long complained that the Army has been lying about his product. According to Myers, “In our limited testing at a renowned ballistics lab in Germany, Dragon Skin was able to defeat more bullets than the Army’s Interceptor and did so with significantly less body trauma.”
Employing yet another media-catnip tactic, Neal and his PR team have convinced some concerned parents that there may be something better than what the Army is supplying their children; they in turn have agitated for Congress to intervene. The House Armed Services Committee’s once-moderate Democratic chairman Rep. Ike Skelton–whose son is a soldier, and who is apparently competing for the Iraq “oversight” job with more reliably left Rep. Henry Waxman–dutifully responded to the NBC broadcast by holding a hearing on the subject of body armor. Alas, the story soon deviated from the script.
In testimony to the committee, the Air Force related its history with Dragon Skin. While researching flexible body armor, the Air Force purchased some Dragon Skin for evaluation. However, after being notified of Dragon Skin test failures, the Air Force requested a live fire test, which Dragon Skin failed, resulting in a recall of all its Dragon Skin. As it happens, the Army has had a similar experience. It had purchased some Dragon Skin vests for use by its Criminal Investigations Command, but recalled the vests in April 2006, not only because of test failures, but because of false certification claims. Finally, under questioning from the committee’s ranking Republican, Duncan Hunter, once an infantryman in Vietnam, one of NBC’s “experts,” upon hearing of the Army’s experience, allowed that Dragon Skin was “not ready for prime time.”
The NBC report, too, included questionable claims–and its tests were indeed “limited,” falling far short of military standards. In fact, Pinnacle’s Dragon Skin body armor has been tested a total of six times by the military, four times by the Army, and once each by the Air Force and Marines. It has failed every time.
On the Army’s website you can see footage of Pinnacle’s Murray Neal peering into a hole in ballistic clay–which simulates the human body–after a test round made a full penetration of his product. The Army standard is, not surprisingly, zero penetrations. According to the Army, Dragon Skin suffered 13 penetrations out of 48 test shots. The service also provided NBC with the results from a May 2006 test showing that Dragon Skin failed Army testing, “miserably” in the words of Brig. Gen. Mark Brown of the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.
But why let the facts get in the way when you’re retelling a story that fits the accepted narrative? The press and the leadership of the Democratic party, in the throes of an extended Vietnam flashback, have decided the war is lost. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid even thinks he knows what’s going on in Baghdad better than does Gen. David Petraeus, the commander on the scene. But the media and the Democrats still fear that their defeatist attitudes may alienate people in uniform, or Americans more broadly. Thus the need to cast soldiers as victims. The only victim in the body army story, though, is the truth.