The Hollywood unit of General Electric, a premier defense contractor (GE, GE2, GE3, GE4, GE5) and one of America’s most respected companies, made and broadcast a drama seen by millions that alleged Army vets of the Afghanistan war were walking time bombs who may explode in madness, kill their wives and themselves and that the US Army is deliberating covering up the danger – even obstructing criminal investigations by deceiving grand juries.
The incredible assertions occurred days before the Memorial Day Weekend, in the final episode Tuesday of the quality highly-rated cop drama, Law & Order: SVU. In the episode E5225, entitled Goliath, the attractive actors portraying the do-right law men and women of the police sex crimes unit were pictured watching returning vets marching in their fatigues on a television screen and left to wonder how many of these returning vets would go crazy and kill their families and themselves – all with foreknowledge of their commanding officers who were covering up the dangers.
This hatchet job by the GE unit occurred as the recruiting efforts of the US armed forces are under stress, as more than one million US service personnel are now veterans of the Afghan/Iraq deployments, and the families of US service personnel are under increasing stress and strain in their struggles to meet the demands of the US Global War on Terror.
The parallel world created in Media-ville by the GE unit was made even more mind bending by the portrayal of the Manhattan DA by former (real life) US Senator Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) who is no longer a presidential wannabe but an actor on the hit series. One of Thompson’s characters most dramatic moments in the episode was to quash an eager assistant’s (actress Diane Neal) subpoena of Secretary Rumsfeld to account for the Army’s behavior before a criminal grand jury.
(Editor's aside: Time out. Okay, maybe the rhetoric about how the Hollywood arm of a premier defense contractor is slandering the Army and sewing fear in the minds of military families during war time is on the edge. But hey, Quillnews used to write for the tabloids; everything written above is kosher tab treatment. Back in the day, news was news and drama was drama; facts were facts and fiction was fiction. But in today’s Media-ville the distinctions between news and entertainment, fact and fiction, are blurred so regularly and consciously for fun, entertainment, irony and political objectives – who knows what is true on TV anymore? (Boorstin, Mitroff) If GE and its Hollywood fantasy factory, NBC Universal, can get away with this kind of allegation during a war – turn about is fair play where I come from.)
Quillnews background: Of course, there is a problem: malaria. The Defense Department, Army, Marines and the volunteers in the armed services are coping with the facts of life in dealing with this deadly disease, as are other responsible institutions of government, including the FDA and CPC. (DoD, DoD2) The problem is that parts of the world in which Americans are seeking to destroy their enemies are also locales where deadly diseases like malaria lurk; our troops deployed in harms way are inoculated with medications modern medicine has devised to prevent disease and death. Malaria is one of the most deadly diseases, particularly a strain that exists in Afghanistan, and which has proven to be resistant to the most popular anti-malaria medications, chloroquine and other doxycyclines. All US personnel, including troops, deployed there are obliged to have medical protection. In the case of malaria and Afghanistan the prevention is an anti-malaria drug mefloquine which is manufactured and sold under the brand name Lariam ® by Roche, the US unit of Hoffman-La Rouche Inc., one of the world’s leading research-oriented pharmaceutical companies.
The concern at hand is that there is evidence that some who take Lariam have had very adverse reactions due to mefloquine toxicity – including psychotic episodes, violent outbursts and thoughts of suicide. As a result of this anecdotal evidence, Lariam is a well-known actor in the world of anti-malaria drugs. One traveling Aussie took the medication in the 1995 during a trip to Africa and his experience changed his life. Some have had genuinely tragic experiences they attribute to Lariam. The Aussie's insightful website on his experience with Lariam is a very helpful resource.
Lariam came into public consciousness in the US in 2002 after three soldiers who returned to Fort Bragg from Afghanistan, murdered their wives and killed themselves. UPI reporters Mark Benjamin and Dan Olmsted began a series of stories – which continue – into the incidents, the use of Lariam and the dangers associated with the anti-malaria inoculation program. (UPI, TGM, SMN, EP, WT) Benjamin is now with Salon.com. News units of WP, CNN, CBS and UPI’s sister publication, Insight Magazine, have all done very thorough reporting on this issue. (IM, IM2, IM3, IM4, IM5, IM6)
There is a lot to know. (FDA, WHO, WHO2, WHO3, State, CDC) Military volunteers, service family members and all travelers to the region are advised to look into the considerable material available about Lariam. (Roche) Partly as a result of the excellent reporting by Benjamin & Olmsted the Army, the FDA and DoD have all launched further studies. The preliminary study by the Army in 2002 into the Fort Bragg murders found that Lariam was an “unlikely cause of the clustering” of deaths there. However, a spokesman for DoD told Quillnews:
“Since that study, Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, also asked the Armed Forces Epidemiological Board (AFEB) for its recommendations on the most scientifically valid methodology for a comprehensive study of anti-malarials, including mefloquine. The AFEB is a panel of civilian experts who advise Dr. Winkenwerder and the military Surgeons General. Based on the AFEB's recommendations, two studies are currently underway and the initial results are expected in about six months. One study is assessing benefits and risks, including the possibility of neuropsychological events. Dr. Winkenwerder directed the studies to ensure the Department could answer the concerns raised by some service members and others regarding mefloquine. There have been numerous studies of this FDA approved and CDC recommended drug, which has been prescribed to more than 20 million travelers worldwide; however, DoD believes it is important to address service members perceptions and concerns in a careful, scientific manner.”
I had called the DoD Wednesday to inquire about the Law & Order: SVU show and find out what the background on the anti-malaria drug the script identified as “Quinium.” I have a bit of skin in this game. When I worked as an oil company soldier I took chloroquine and other medications for years when I traveled in coastal west Africa and way out of the way spots in Indonesia where there were some deadly malaria strains in the same neighborhood as some oil prospects. (Editor's aside: Oil never seems to be in easy-to-get spots.)
Like all travelers, I had weighed the risks. Adverse reactions associated with mefloquine were 1 per 6,000 to 1 per 10,600 travelers, compared with 1 per 13,600 travelers taking doxycycline. In Nigeria, I knew of another ex-pat's spouse who didn’t like how malaria pills made her feel so, tragically, she didn’t take them. She contracted the disease in Lagos one sad Tuesday and was dead by Thursday.
After the dramatic allegations about “Quinium” on Law & Order: SVU episode, I looked for the information about the drug on line. I never liked taking the anti-malaria drugs and thought they made me sick; at times I've wondered if there was any lasting effects. Finding no information or explanation at the GE, NBC, NBC Universal, NBC Universal Television Group, Law & Order sites, I asked the DoD for further information.
A spokesman said there was no drug called “Quinium,” but she emailed me loads of material about Lariam. “Oh I bet that reporter Mark Benjamin is part of this program,” she joked, explaining that Benjamin had been working the story for years. I took it he'd made a pest of himself while researching his articles. I emailed Benjamin and he sent me a link to the story he posted in Salon.com Wednesday on this very subject. Under the headline “Ripped from my headlines!” the lead paragraph of Benjamin’s Salon story reads:
“When you turn on one of the 'Law and Order' shows and it's styled to look as if it's been 'ripped from the headlines,' what that really means is 'ripped off' from the headlines. Tuesday's episode of 'Law and Order: SVU' looked like it had been ripped from the headlines of three years of investigative reporting that cost me a lot of sweat and shoe leather. No, I did not get a dime. And no one from NBC even called to say how truly inspiring my work was, or how the truth really can be stranger than fiction -- or even that the damn episode existed…”
Benjamin’s Salon article is informative and gives a good-natured critique of the TV drama versus the real life events he helped illuminate (even having some fun with the show's characterization of a dumpster-digging newsman who gives the cops crucial notes). In the final paragraph of the Benjamin’s article shows while he and his colleague Dan Olmsted may have done what the truth required, the TV story tellers failed:
“There was one last leap of logic that TV could take, but we couldn't. The detectives decide at the end of "Law and Order: SVU" that the military is well aware of what the drug does to soldiers. That they have made a cold, hard cost-benefit analysis that it is worth the deaths of some soldiers -- and even their wives -- to prevent malaria. They think this drug is better than the alternatives and they don't care who it hurts and they will cover it up if they have to. Dan and I never found any evidence that that was the case.”
It is here that Quillnews has a problem. GE is one of America’s greatest corporations. It is a model of corporate citizenship and excellent operational performance for shareholders. Among its many operating divisions are units specifically targeted at the US government for Military and Homeland Security applications. GE also has operated the best of the three TV broadcast networks for years, nurtured a quality NBC News, and been creatively adapting with a variety of diverse programming to the new world of cable and internet with its CNBC and MSNBC units.
GE recently acquired Universal Network Television unit from Vivendi/Universal and merged that Hollywood production factory with NBC Studios to create NBC Universal Television Group. This GE unit works with Wolf Films Inc. to produce Law & Order: SVU, among many other shows.
These are all quality shops. Wolf is one of TV’s best. GE has a long distinguished history, beginning with Thomas Edison, through its association with an actor/pitch man, Ronald Reagan, who went on to become an historic titan of public affairs after years of lecture circuit chores in GE plants, through the ace earnings and operational performance of exec Jack Welch, who will likely be judged among the most accomplished of his generation of corporate leaders.
America, GE’s home base, is at war. The volunteers who serve to protect and defend their country and their families during this difficult conflict deserve more consideration than to be given sleepless nights by of some TV cop drama. If GE’s NBC unit wishes to get into the Lariam matter, it has ample ways to serve the greater public good and alert people to the issues. But GE should not be party to some Hollywood scriptwriter's or producer's anti-war agenda by making dramatic narratives that the US Army is deliberating ignoring and covering up dangers associated with medicines and as a result family members of more than a million service personnel are at risk from their returning loves ones.
Quillnews advice to GE’s NBC Universal: Your total response to Quillnews on these questions about your allegations against the Army was: "Law & Order is fiction." That is technically true, perhaps, but an unworthy dodge. (Editor's aside: GE/NBC's response is the equivalent of saying: we didn't commit a crime. That's a good start GE/NBC's in-house attorneys would approve. But the families of America's volunteers deserve better than that from one of American's best outfits). All fiction exists in a context of time, and in a political, cultural and social context from which the fiction derives its narrative power. The context for this fiction was this war in May 2005, the tragic facts about Lariam and dangers of malaria, and the sacrifices and sufferings of the volunteers who are serving our country. For your fantasy factory to hide behind the feather fan that your seditious slander was "fiction," and after you have accused the Army that defends you of lying, of obstruction, of complicity in homicide... Puh-lease!
Quillnews suggests that if GE's Hollywood shop wants to raise a sensitive or troubling issue like this in a fictionalized drama from time to time, have those who wish to enjoy the fiction, but use the web to help those viewers who wish to learn more about the complete truth behind your dramas. A brief explanation about the issue after the show showing a toll free number or web address and a simple link, say here, to guide viewers seeking more information about Lariam and malaria would give you more credibility when your creative artists in Hollywood make their arguments about artistic freedom, poetic license, the enlightenment possible from creative arts, and the seeking of the greater good and higher artistic truths.
GE, get real: some Hollywood weasels are using your assets
to get over their anti-war propaganda here. We all know the script from that phony Michael Moore movie: the US government is lying
to the people, the volunteers are being fooled and tricked and
poisoned, and the Army higher-ups are covering it all up. Bad things
are happening as a result. We say this just before Memorial Day because
we really are just supporting the troops! This has been the default party-line since the anti-Vietnam war days. Let true believers in that message -- Sixties dead-enders and their Red manipulators -- say what they want, but don't put GE's assets and the reputation of your employees and brands at their disposal to undermine the forces defending freedom.