On Afghanistan
By David Wood

As a war journalist, my M.O. has always been simple: live with the troops, from privates to generals, and report as accurately as I can. Two goals: 1. Have fun. 2. Give readers an upfront view of the troops and the war so they get a better gut feel for the conflict, and perhaps rethink the conventional wisdom.

But it's an awkward position. Embedded reporters like me inevitably become friends with the troops that we're covering. After all, we share the heat and dust, the sticky MREs, the boredom and the danger. We make them visible to their families and friends back home. Everybody likes to see his picture in the paper. And the troops keep us safe. "Thanks for being with us -- it takes a lot of balls to go out there without a weapon,'' a Marine corporal told me once. "But just remember, we always had your back covered."

 

The price is, you have to be willing to risk those friendships if it comes to that. Sometimes, it comes to that (I'm thinking of the towering, red-faced, clenched-fist sergeant major who tore after me once for something I wrote). But I always ask myself, if I'm not willing to write straight and honest and take the consequences, what am I doing out here?

Of course it's more complicated than that. Covering war is not press-conference reporting, divided neatly into questions and bland answers from an "Authority.'' This is trickier (and way more interesting). Embedded reporters are not quite inside the Band of Brothers, but we're alongside. Through some mental gymnastics, troops forget I'm a journalist even though I have my notebook open. And they love to talk. Ask a grunt what he does, and you'll get the technical specs of his weapon, the unprintable details of his latest amorous conquests and his opinions of his platoon sergeant, the grand strategy of the United States, and on members of Congress.

And in the heat and stress and confusion of military operations, people say things without stopping to consider how it'll look in print. One evening in Haiti, after a day of searching for putrefying bodies in the earthquake rubble, a sergeant confided that he and his paratroopers -- hardened combat veterans -- were all going to a mental health counselor when they got home. I used that in a story because it encapsulated the stress the troops were feeling. But I didn't name either the sergeant or the unit.

The trick is to separate out wheat from chaff. No, private, I'm not going to quote you on whether Richard Holbrooke ought to be replaced. No thanks, major, for your acerbic views on Hamid Karzai; I'll talk to somebody who deals directly with the Afghan president and has a credible assessment.

Much of what I hear (and write down) is just outrageous enough or majorly funny that I can't resist, even if I have to clean it up. A Marine major in southern Afghanistan once wearily complained to me that he has spent his entire adult life "eating out of a plastic bag and [defecating] in a hole in the ground.'' I used the quote but it wasn't an "interview'' and I didn't use his name.

After the smoke cleared from the McChrystal affair, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates issued new guidance to his top commanders, requiring them to clear any interviews first with his office, the New York Times reported Friday.

That's for the generals. The Pentagon has long required reporters requesting to cover military operations first to sign a lengthy "media ground rules'' document.

My copy, from ISAF ( the International Security Assistance Force, the allied military command), is touchingly earnest in its attempt to specify what must and may not be done.

Don't divulge details of upcoming operations, it advises, unnecessarily. Don't give away secrets to the enemy. OK. But also, Don't say two F-16s strafed enemy positions (as it does in an Air Force press release). Say "fighters'' or "fixed wing aircraft,'' and instead of saying "two'' you must say "many'' or "few.''

Go ahead and laugh (you could violate the rules by quoting the military's own press releases!), but I have had friends thrown out of the country for violating these rules. Rumor has it that the Defense Department has battalions of lawyers searching the news for violations. And I wouldn't be surprised.

The ISAF rules also demand that "all interviews with service members will be on the record.'" I presume this is an attempt to head off random quotes and make everybody think before they speak. The problem, of course, is the definition of "interview.'' If a guy on the next seat in the latrine complains about his weapon misfiring, is that an interview? If you go on shore leave with boisterous gang of Marines and end up in a drunken brawl in which allies are loudly insulted, is that off the record? (Not that I necessarily speak from experience.)

...

The argument can and maybe should go on. Meantime I'll take my ISAF media ground rules with me to Afghanistan, but I'll navigate by the old standards: fairness, balance, accuracy. If I've got to burn a bridge, I'll be home early.

This piece has been republished with permission - the original can be found here: http://www.politicsdaily.com/2010/07/03/afghanistan-journal-why-i-wouldnt-have-written-the-mcchyrstal/.

In 30 years of covering conflict, David Wood has filed dispatches from dozens of battlefields (alphabetically, from Afghanistan to Zambia) and has embedded many times with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units as well as with guerrillas and brigands in Africa. He is a birthright Quaker and former conscientious objector, and was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his reporting on conflict, national security and foreign affairs.

 

 

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