Soldiers and Reporters


Much email comes my way, from military folk both current and retired, assuring me that the press consists of leftist commy anti-American liberal tree-hugging cowardly backstabbers who probably like the French and would date Jane Fonda. It is an old song. Having spent decades covering the armed forces, I have seen much of the Pentagon and the press. Things are a tad more complex. A few thoughts: The military, particularly the officer corps, wants not reporting but cheerleading. The very idea of an uncontrolled press is repugnant. Thus officers try to keep reporters away from enlisted men, who are less political and tend to say things that, while true, are not policy. Thus the edgy, wary hostility in the presence of reporters. The truth of what a reporter writes doesn't matter to them, only whether it is 'positive.' The reasons for this sensitivity are in part practical, given that wars cannot long be fought without the support of the public. There are deeper reasons. First, there is the military's stark with-us-or-against-us outlook. Second, the intense loyalty to the group that characterizes military men. Third, an authoritarian structure to which reporters seem an uncontrolled rabble. 'Uncontrolled' is the key word. The military believes that the press should be part of the team. Its job should be not to report but to support. 'Are they Americans, or aren't they?' To see what the command thinks the press should be, read a base newspaper. It will be a cross between a PR handout and a Weekly Reader. Reporters do not see their job as cheerleading, this being the work of PR people, whom they despise. Correspondents by nature are not team players but salaried freelances who compete with, instead of cooperating with, their colleagues. Glory hounds, they want to break the big story themselves. Instead of being loyal to any group, they are suspicious of all groups. They do not respect authority. Frequently incompetent, they are pushy, demanding, and irritating. The military is afraid of them. You hate what you fear. In short, they are everything the military detests. If they did their jobs perfectly, which neither they nor soldiers do, the military would still loathe them. Further, soldiers with exceptions are insular, reporters greatly less so. Consider. A kid who goes to West Point lives for four years, in formative late adolescence, with relentless military indoctrination. This is not in all respects bad. It tends to produce a personally honest, public-spirited, responsible man who makes an admirable citizen. These same men can run a carrier battle group, as difficult and impressive a thing as I have ever seen done, and they can do it only because they obey, make sacrifices, and respect the group. The young cadet then goes to Fort Hood, say, for three years in which he is almost exclusively in the company of other soldiers. Next, three years in an armored division in Germany (the rotations may have changed) during which he is again constantly with soldiers and, since GIs don't learn languages, unable to communicate with Germans other than bartenders. The Army is his entire existence. By the time he is thirty he is deeply imbued with a bird-politics leftwing vs. rightwing view of things. He is by no means stupid'the academies get bright students'but he is simple-minded. He believes profoundly that one is either on the team or one is with the enemy. Reporters aren't on the team. They report what they see, or think they see. Many do not know what they are talking about, but the military detests even more those who do. In time of war, truthfulness makes them traitors. Soldiers often use the word, and they mean it. You are with us, or you are with the enemy. The two groups live in sharply differing mental worlds. While reporters are more insular than they should be, they are much less so than the military. They see a broader slice of the world and rub shoulders with more kinds of people. The overseas correspondents see more wars than do soldiers. The result is a certain cosmopolitanism which, whether good or bad, is much at odds with the clarity of the military's outlook. For example, many in Washington who actually know how the press works (the military actually doesn't) believe that the press supports the war in Iraq, has until recently given the White House a free ride, and has been adroitly controlled by the government. I agree. If newspapers had been against the war, they would have published countless photos of gut-shot soldiers who will never get a date, paraplegics doomed to a life on a slab, and more Abu Ghraib photos (which they have.) Soldiers don't know this. In any event, anything but unqualified support is treason. The military usually regards journalists as cowards. ('Coward' and 'traitor' are their gravest pejoratives.) This is questionable. When the 2000th US soldier died in Iraq, I checked the site of Reporters Without Borders and found that 72 reporters had been killed there (with two more missing), or 3.6 percent of the military total. I don't know how many troops have served in Iraq. Just now it is about 160,000. To be conservative, let's call it 130,000 on average, making 347,100 for two and two-thirds years of war. By the equation 2,000/347,000 = 72/x, one finds that there would have to have been 12,500 reporters in Iraq to have equal rates of death between reporters and soldiers. Otherwise, the press is taking casualties at a higher rate than the military. The calculation is rough, but makes the point. Further, reporters can leave any time they choose. The government forces soldiers to fight under penalty of long jail sentences and, in many times and places, death. If you dispute this, tell the troops that they can fly home tomorrow without punishment and see how many remain. They would not leave from cowardice, but from lack of a stake in the outcome. (Would you leave your children fatherless because you wanted democracy in Iraq?) More than most professions, the military lives in a world defined by idealism. Being a dentist does not carry an ideology with it. Being a soldier does. The dedicated soldier thinks in terms of honor, valor, loyalty, sacrifice, and heroism, of righting wrong and defeating evil, of proving himself in combat, of glory and exaltation and defending the fatherland. The reporter sees the dead lying in the street, the flies crawling in shattered craniums, the bombed-out cities for year after year without change. He hears this described as progress. To him it is pure bullshit. Maybe, maybe not. But it is how he thinks. Journalists are not idealists. Cynical, weary of being lied to, having seen the fraud and self-interest that underlie, as they come to see it, almost everything, they regard the soldiery as a riverboat gambler might regard the Boy Scouts. The soldiery regard the press as a Boy Scout might regard a riverboat gambler. Different mental worlds. Ambiguity disturbs soldiers. Few of us can kill and die for ifs and maybes and on-the-one-hand. Thus every war is described in apocalyptic terms, whether Vietnam, Granada, Korea, or Iraq: We must defeat them there or we'll have to fight them in California. Usually this is nonsense. Journalists may suggest as much. And so, again, they become traitors. The moral ambiguity of war is especially painful. While military men as citizens are at least as moral as the rest of the population, as warriors they are not, and can't be. Because of this conflict they therefore have to believe things about themselves that are not true. Consequently you may hear a soldier saying with perfectly sincerity that the US military goes to great lengths to avoid killing civilians. Furious accusation of treason arise when reporters point out that they are in fact killing civilians. For example, while a case can be made that the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were militarily desirable, they cannot well be described as attempts to preserve civilians. The bombings of cities in WWII were intended to kill civilians, hundreds of thousands of them, to break morale. In war utility invariably trumps decency. Reporters, being traitorous, will write of these things. After initial cheerleading while the war goes well, they will note that it isn't going well any longer. Soldiers, who are being killed and mangled, come to hate them, seldom distinguishing between being against a war and being against the troops. After the hell of combat, who wants to hear that maybe it wasn't really a good idea after all? On and on it goes.

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Fred Reed's picture
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