Behind Friendly Lines By Jason Davis
Behind Friendly Lines
By Jason Davis
Michael Yon is the Exception.
As an independent journalist, Yon has written from Iraq and Afghanistan more frequently than any other journalist, and he has been praised for his insightfully accurate observations about the state of the wars; he has won numerous awards for his work, has written a best-selling book, and has been quoted in various mainstream media outlets as a credible and experienced source. Among Milbloggers, Yon has enjoyed a rabid, cult following for his tireless dispatches in support of the troops.
But recent informal comments by Yon on his Facebook and Twitter pages have left some fans disgruntled with the star writer’s conduct, despite the notion that a greater story may further illustrate growing deception and crony’istic censure enacted by top military brass overseas.
Yon has alleged that top commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, has enacted a smear campaign against him, after his recent disembed from a unit in Afghanistan. Yon suspects this disembed is the result of lucid, less-than-flattering dispatches he has written that portray top commanders as having questionable merit and competence to lead.
“Further evidence of McChrystal's incompetence,” writes Yon, “is the ease with which he jerks a writer from the field and gets a laser on himself/staff for lying. And then his own staff commits defamation and libel. They fight like children. They are giving me their ammo. It's saddening. We cannot win such a complex war with people like that in charge. This is not a winning team.”
It wouldn’t be the first time a journalist has publicly questioned the official military story, but few, if any, have done it informally via social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter—real-time technologies not previously available to journalists of any era. Until recently, journalists were more subtle and understated in their criticisms, which is the case with Hiroshima, by John Hersey.
In 1945, a nuclear bomb named “Little Boy” was dropped from a B-29 Bomber onto the city of Hiroshima, killing 80,000 people and leveling more than 70% of the city. Just months after Hiroshima’s destruction, and after the war had ended, Hersey, a noted author and journalist, traveled to Hiroshima to interview survivors for a lengthy, narrative feature for The New Yorker. What followed is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest narrative nonfiction works of the 20th century.
The immensely successful article follows the account of six survivors, from seconds before the blast, to the scurry for survival in the days after. But the greater story subtly concerns the period of reconstruction after the bomb, when the United States Army restricted Japanese investigation and research into what happened. Weeks passed before survivors learned that an American super-bomb was dropped from the sky. Hersey, for whatever reason, decided not to write a pro-US, pro-bomb historical account that thankfully ended the war. Instead, his narrative was sympathetic to the innocent civilians who had lived through the experience and for that, the American Occupation Government in Japan discouraged the distribution of Hersey’s article.
It doesn’t matter why the American Occupation Government suppressed local research into the event—only that it did. In this instance, the military’s restriction of information provides an historical precedent:
In 1971, The New York Times printed the “Pentagon Papers” a top secret and extensive list of public deceptions commissioned by the Department of Defense concerning the history of American involvement in Vietnam. These papers show, among other things, that an American bombing campaign in Vietnam was well planned before America’s first involvement in the war.
In 1990, President George H.W. Bush, acting on information provided by top-secret satellite images, alleged, “within three days, 120,000 Iraqi troops with 850 tanks had poured into Kuwait and moved south to threaten Saudi Arabia. It was then that I decided to act to check that aggression.” [emphasis mine] A reporter from the Saint Petersburg Times, having obtained Russian, commercial satellite images over the same area at the same time, had found nothing but empty desert.
And on February 5, 2003, Colin Powell claimed to know what, in fact, US intelligence reports did not show: there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and there was not a valid link between 9-11, Al Qaeda, and Iraq.
Of course, there are many more instances in which our government is either not telling the truth, or is intentionally hiding the truth—and there is a difference. This short list serves to remind that some of our recent and most famous (tragic) wars are the result of government deception. What this means is that we have continually had a government that is willing to deceive us, and the rest of the world, for its own intentions—and that is wrong. Always wrong.
Through many of these leaks and investigations into government practices, it is inevitably the investigative journalist who brings to light the crimes committed by our elected officials, and those our elected officials hire. Today’s journalists who cover America’s wars have far less access to troops and leaders than they used to—and far less than they need. Now, journalists rely exclusively on the military for transportation, embedded assignments, and official news releases.
As a journalist in training, and former Sergeant in the United States Army, I see this as a serious infraction on journalistic integrity. One of the detractions against embedded journalism is that journalists often do not have access to local populations and are seen as too sympathetic to invading forces. Indeed, when a journalist is required to sign a contract with the military, which effectively limits what he can and cannot say, then what journalist can act any more than as a tool for propaganda?
To Yon’s credit, General McChrystal has a less than stellar history (his bio shows where he’s been, and what his soldiers have done), and has demonstrated a penchant for distortion of facts (Pat Tillman investigation).
“I have in my possession compelling evidence of General McChrystal’s smear campaign,” writes Yon. “It’s been sent to my attorney. The sad part is that McChrystal is incompetent even with a smear campaign. Official statements by his people—in writing—have been defamatory and libelous. A writer must be able to spot libel just as ...a soldier must be able to spot IEDs. It’s part of the job. If you can’t spot it, you will get hurt.”
Remarkably, it is Yon’s most ardent supporters who are now calling him out. A comment left on Yon’s Facebook page states, “You need to chill, and listen to the writers at Blackfive concerning your situation. If you haven’t read their letters of advice you should.... soon.”
Blackfive, a popular, ultra-conservative, pro-military blog written by a slew of retired and former veterans, is calling for Yon to take a break and to reassess whether his work has become more about himself than the war.
In Micheal Yon Wake Up Call, “writer” Uncle Jimbo asks Yon “to wake the hell up.” The article is hardly inspiring and instead of analyzing Yon’s content, Uncle Jimbo begins by apologizing, as if his commentary holds the weight of absolute truth. Jimbo continues his wakeup call with a red herring, a formal fallacy of irrelevance, or ad hominem—attack on the person, by stating that Yon didn’t go “to war,” but as a journalist, merely went “to the war.”
Interestingly, whether Yon went to war, or to the war, with a gun or pen, he has no doubt seen and experienced more of the conflict than most who are actually fighting the wars. In fact, more than even Jimbo, whose only intellectual offering comes in a disclaimer at the bottom:
“I have not embedded...ever. I am not going to embed because I don't want to. I like being in the rear w/ the gear. I have plenty of stamps on my passport, have toured the most craptastic places on the planet, and now don't deploy anywhere w/o room service. I respect what Michael Yon has done, I just think he is acting like a jackass.”
What this amounts to is frivoled and uninformed commentary that is neither strong in rhetoric, nor adequate in providing specific reasons why Yon’s “competence” is called into question. To be an effective writer, one must eminently “show, not tell,” and after reading Jimbo’s article, there is little advice, and too many unsubstantiated statements.
To his credit, writing is not Jimbo’s craft. But, apparently, Blackfive writer “The Laughing Wolf,” C. Blake Powers, is a writer. In “An Open Letter to Michael Yon,” Laughing Wolf suggests that Yon should “stop, step back, and think.” That is a fair suggestion for anyone, in any situation. But Laughing Wolf, too, employs the use of many informal fallacies that negate the effectiveness of his argument: appeal to authority (Uncle Jimbo, Michael Yon Wake Up Call), argumentum ad populum (Yon’s confronters), appeal to consequences and cum hoc, ergo propter hoc (the assertion that the lowest common denominator of four disembeds is Yon, himself).
Clearly, writing is more than just an appropriate use of grammar. Behind the façade of Blackfive’s “advice” to Yon, which is nothing more than a call to “stop doing what you are doing,” and “slow down,” we find an important characteristic inherently biased in the Blackfive mission: to propagate the tireless advocacy of the military and to verbally criminalize those who oppose them (hasty generalization, or an appropriate observation?).
Because of Yon’s informal status updates on Facebook and Twitter, he is now a traitor. As a former soldier, he should know not to talk dirty against the Chain of Command, right? By bashing military command in Afghanistan, Blackfive, and others, are effectively saying that Yon is no longer a part of the “good ‘ol boys club,” that his work is now selfish, and that he is something less than what he used to be.
But is he? Is Yon anything less than an investigative journalist? Isn’t it his job to uncover dirt—even dirt that we may not always want to hear or believe? Hasn’t Yon proven himself sufficiently credible at doing just that? Hasn’t he always flown arrogantly in the face of the mainstream with his views? And, isn’t his work heralded for its candid and honest portrayal of what the mainstream media is not covering (appeal to emotion, or valid thinking?)?
This is more than about being a hero for the military—it’s about journalistic integrity. Unfortunately, that just isn’t something I expect the Facebook and Twitter detractors and “writers” at Blackfive to understand. After all, freedom of speech works precisely because of the military’s hard-won effort to preserve the rights of every American’s access to it.
In Vietnam, journalist Michael Herr (whose experiences, along with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, are the inspiration for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now) had free access to any Huey he could find, and often lived for days on any base or camp for as long as he could stand. In World War II, photojournalist Robert Capa was a part of the landing on D-Day, and John Hersey, working for Life and Time, had “accompanied Allied troops on their invasion of Sicily, survived four airplane crashes, and was commended by the Secretary of the Navy for his role in helping evacuate wounded soldiers from Guadalcanal.” You can’t get any closer to the troops than actually swimming and flying with them.
Along with exposing government corruption, these journalists and photographers have given us the most iconic and genre-defining works of art ever made. It is precisely that closeness that enabled these writer’s and photographer’s incredible work over the last century, and it is precisely that closeness our government is now restricting.
Ultimately, the debate should not be about whether Michael Yon has “lost it,” or needs a break. The real argument is whether Yon is being silenced because he has spoken critically and publicly (and perhaps arrogantly and tactlessly) of commanders. If that is the case, then his blacklisting should not come as a surprise.
What’s most surprising is that the government has finally assumed complete control over who can have access to tell the war story. Such control will no doubt have a perverse impact on the future of unbiased reporting.
“If a writer wants to make money,” writes Yon, “he should avoid truth and tell people what they want to hear."
And that’s exactly what the government wants to hear.