On returning to her Washington, D.C. broadcasting studio after a week-long visit with U.S. troops in Iraq, Laura Ingraham ended one of her talk radio monologues with words to the effect that she’d learned more about what the U.S. military is doing in the first two days of her visit than she had in months’ worth of reading beforehand.
That honesty, and a pair of stories in the news since, got me thinking again about the franchise discussion in Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers.
Science fiction buffs may recall that Heinlein’s coming-of-age-in-the-galactic-infantry yarn imagined a milieu in which voting rights were not afforded to any citizen until completion of a two-year term of “federal service.” For sketching a society where every voter and political officeholder had demonstrated through “voluntary and difficult service” that he or she “placed the welfare of the group ahead of personal advantage,” Heinlein was denounced in some quarters as fascist or worse.
Jim Crow in battle dress uniform would be unwise and unworkable, but we needn’t go that far to wonder whether the shortage of professional journalists with military experience has been a handicap in the civilized world’s ongoing struggle with Islamism. If you ever meet a reporter with paratrooper wings, shake his hand, because J-school and Jump School are too often worlds apart.
The hole in our information roster can’t be blamed exclusively on journalists themselves; it’s part of a hole in the culture at large. Consider the paucity of military figures in prime-time TV listings. Kiefer Sutherland’s portrayal of muscular counterterrorism in 24 may be enough to ensure that he never has to buy a drink in bars near Fort Campbell and Camp Lejeune, but Jack Bauer is technically a civilian. And while the now-defunct
J.A.G. was military-friendly, shows about characters in the armed forces come few and far between. You can go back in TV history as far as Rat Patrol (1966-1968) and still find that doctors and lawyers command more small-screen time than soldiers.
There are journalists doing yeoman work to correct public ignorance about military matters. The late Michael Kelly was one such person; Robert Kaplan, Bill Roggio, and Mike Yon are three others. Sadly, their reporting is too often brushed aside for you-are-there bromides from the well-traveled but inexpert likes of correspondents like Christiane Amanpour.
Consider my own locale: San Diego remains a Navy town, but in a story about the fall of former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham published last Friday, February 24, a staff writer on the biggest of the local newspapers leaned heavily on a report from a Beverly Hills psychiatrist who opined for Cunningham’s defense team that the Vietnam ace convicted of corruption was brought down by a “mantle of invulnerability” born of a fighter pilot’s love for “aggressive tactics.” The psychiatrist also had the temerity to suggest that although Cunningham was expected to behave differently in Congress than he had while shooting down Soviet aircraft (imagine!), “the psyche cannot make such a U-turn easily.”
The first stunner in that article is that Cunningham’s lawyers apparently decided to defend their bribe-seeking client by smearing the mental and ethical capacities of every warrior who ever traded dog tags for the low-level notoriety of being recognized by the Speaker of the House when it’s time to fill C-Span air with a few words about mohair or honey subsidies.
The second stunner in the piece is that although the reporter notes in paragraph four (of 40) that the psychiatrist’s speculations about Cunningham are disputed by other doctors and “another former Navy pilot,” comeuppance comes late to the party. It’s on the jump page and 14 paragraphs into the account that we hear from Cunningham’s former executive officer, who reveals his contempt for the speculation of Dr. Saul Faerstein with the says-it-all quote, “I don’t think naval aviation ever trained anybody to be a crook.”
Point made, but since the article leads with a report to that effect and depends on inducing credulous readers into cutting some slack for its author, sanity gets short shrift — and for the same reason that Mike Yon spent time in his first book debunking the idea that soldiers in elite units are taught “secret” punches.
Hand-to-hand combat goes back as far as Cain and Abel, Yon observed, which means that by now there’s nothing secret about it. Neither Green Berets nor Shaolin monks nicknamed “Grasshopper” are initiated into the fraternity of the secret punch. That some people punch properly and some don’t is a function of training and experience rather than gnostic martial mastery.
If more journalists had military experience, the New York Times would not necessarily have published a faked missile photo from a Pakistani village in the aftermath of an American attempt to kill a marquee-level terrorist two months ago. Lacking that experience, editors at that publication and several others did not realize that the ordnance shown could not have been fired from a Predator drone or from a helicopter. Accordingly, they accepted an erroneous caption first written by a stringer for Agence France Presse.
As the source of that particular debacle makes clear, ignorance of military matters is not unique to American journalists. Last week in Moscow, embarrassed officials yanked a poster meant to honor veterans of the Russian military from 20 billboards after belatedly discovering that it used the image of an American battleship rather than a Russian one. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that the U.S.S. Missouri appeared on the poster because employees at the civilian firm handling that billboard contract for the Defense Ministry mistook the Mighty Mo for a Russian cruiser. The Guardian quoted a former commander of the Black Sea Fleet railing against what he called “the incompetence of the designers” even as he graciously allowed that it wasn’t a big deal to confuse “two heroic ships.”
True, any one episode of confusion over martial matters is not a big deal. But when paying moderate attention to current events gives one enough ammunition (pun intended) to dredge up several such examples in a few minutes, it’s time to recommend remedial reading in military history to any journalist who has never worn khaki that he or she couldn’t find at a Banana Republic outlet store.
Revolutionary War artillery chief Henry Knox was a bookseller by trade, and Gettysburg hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a teacher before and after donning Union blue, but experience made both of them role models for any civilian writing even tangentially about the armed forces. As smart-mouthed Josh Arnold said to alingering relative Jimbob Buel in Richard Bradford’s magnificent Red Sky at Morning, by way of torpedoing Jimbob’s ignorant discourse on naval strategy during a farewell dinnner for a family relocating during World War Two, “Is that khaki you’re wearing? Because in the candlelight, it looks more like seersucker.”
Journalists tread beyond their expertise all too frequently, and we who depend on them to varying degrees deserve better, especially in wartime.