I was eight years old when Watergate broke, and I literally grew up immersed in the belief that the government was always out to cover something up, and the press was the white knight out to expose these transgressions. After seeing the press shenanigans for the last ten years, I think a readjustment is in order. I’m not saying give the government a pass – the inoculation took, and I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them. I’m saying it’s time to shine that same light on the press. They aren’t white knights, out to protect the poor shlep who can’t do it himself. They’re out to make money, no matter whom or what it harms. Everything else is just bullshit posturing in the name of the first amendment.
The Los Angeles Times released a story today detailing U.S. troops posing with the dismembered remains of suicide bombers. Not bombers that had just attacked them, but corpses that the Afghans had reported to US authorities, and which they had been sent out to gather DNA for a database. Cutting edge journalism? Breaking open the next “big story” on the War on Terror? Hell no. The pictures were taken over two years ago, and the story was posted for no other reason than to sell papers. Period. Unfortunately, the story itself will also cost American lives and set back the COIN fight in Afghanistan. But who cares? It’s all freedom of the press.
Before I go on, some disclaimers, like a newscaster revealing their parent company: 1. I served in Fallujah, Iraq with the brigade commander mentioned, when he was a battalion commander. 2. Nothing in here should indicate that I think the soldiers in question deserve special treatment because they were “in combat”. I think they should be hammered, just like the Marines who urinated on corpses.
The Marine story came out right when All Necessary Force was released, and very few interviews went by without someone asking my thoughts. About 90% of the time the interviewer expected me to whine about the “persecution” of the Marines, when in fact, I was vehement about how wrong the action was, and how much damage it had done to our counter-insurgency fight. Even forgetting the strategic implications, make no mistake, desecration of dead combatants is a war crime, period. Yeah, I wasn’t there, and I’m sure it was horrific, but combat in and of itself causes a moral decay the moment you step into the arena. You’re told your whole life “though shalt not kill”, then told, “here’s a gun – go kill that guy”. There’s a reason for the Law of Land Warfare. It’s to prevent armed conflict from devolving into the Lord of the Flies. As for the Marines, they were snipers. An elite. Not a group the guy straight out of boot camp would belong to. They weren’t kids, and they were wrong.
Now, to the LA Times story. Or more precisely, the lack of one. Why on earth did they release this piece? What the hell is the burning issue? Nothing. Ostensibly, the photos were given to the Times because the soldier wanted to “prevent a tragedy” because “security was light” at his base. Really? You go to the Times TWO YEARS LATER and give them inflammatory pictures that have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE SECURITY OF THE BASE because you’re worried about your fellow soldiers? Bullshit. Plain and simple.
As for the LA Times, they’re murderers in my mind. No different than the driver of a car for a robber who murders someone in a liquor store. They can say all day long that they “didn’t know the effect it would have”, just like the crack-head driver, but they’re responsible for American deaths. For nothing other than to sell newspapers. I hope they’re proud.
I remember when Abu Ghraib broke. I was off my first deployment from Iraq, and disgusted by the story. Disgusted both by the soldiers involved, and by the press that reported it. The Pentagon was already doing an investigation into the events, and would have pursued justice regardless of the stories, but the release itself was a strategic calamity that literally could be compared to Pearl Harbor in its damage. There’s a ton of second guessing going on about how long Iraq lasted, but none is pointed at the press that caused it.
I remember reading Newsweek’s excuse for releasing the photos when I was fresh from the battlefield. In summary, it said, “The Pentagon asked us not to release them because of the extreme adverse effect it would have, and we agreed. Then, another news source said they were going to release them regardless of what the Pentagon asked, so we beat them to the punch because we would have lost the money involved with the scoop.” That was the last Newsweek magazine delivered to my house. In fact, the last one I have ever read.
Yeah, it was all about journalistic integrity. And the almighty dollar. There is no telling how many American – and Iraqi – lives were lost because those photos were published. And for what? In the end, the Army finished its investigation, and the primary face of the abuse – Lynddie England – received a whopping three years in prison. Something she would have received whether or not the pictures had come out anyway. The military, unlike the civilian courts, could give a rat’s ass about the press involved, and looked strictly at the facts.
You think I’m making up the concrete impact of a press for hire? Two years after Abu Ghraib the mighty Newsweek published another story detailing soldiers in GITMO flushing Quran’s down the toilet in an effort to get detainees to talk. The story was picked up in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the typical riots ensued. After at least fifteen deaths, Newsweek apologized. Turns out the entire thing was bullshit, based on an “anonymous” source. Oh well, at least it sold magazines. Who cares how many people still believe it?
I fought for over twenty years defending the constitution, and like everything in America, some people do what’s right, and some people manipulate and cower behind the constitution to promote their own interests. I’ll fight for both of them, but it sickens me.
In Abu Ghraib’s case, unsurprisingly, the “other press” that Newsweek wanted to beat to the punch was none other than Seymour Hersh, whom I’ve already shown in another post as a lying opportunist. In the LA Times piece, it’s hard to show any redeeming reasons for the story.
In an ultimate twist of irony, the LA Times states in their earth-shattering scoop, “The photos have emerged at a particularly sensitive moment for U.S.-Afghan relations. In January, a video appeared on the Internet showing four U.S. Marines urinating on Afghan corpses. In February, the inadvertent burning of copies of the Koran at a U.S. base triggered riots that left 30 dead and led to the deaths of six Americans. In March, a U.S. Army sergeant went on a nighttime shooting rampage in two Afghan villages, killing 17.”
Wow. Really? The photos “emerged”, like they showed up in downtown LA walking down the street flipping off the pedestrians? Or like you looked at your flagging sales and decided to publish some titillation for the American public that you knew would garner national press? Regardless of the international repurcussions, and despite the fact that the department of defense begged you not to? Give me a break. Liar.
At the end of the day, all counter-insurgency is a fight for legitimacy between the insurgents and the incumbent government. It’s an information fight. Stories like this undercut the COIN campaign in tangible, concrete ways, beyond the simple loss of life. I remember very well collecting data on foreign fighters in Iraq in an effort to understand their motivations. Overall numbers are still classified, but rest assured, when asked “Why are you here fighting”, the answer “Abu Ghraib” was in the top three. And not because they heard it on the street, like some apologists would have you believe, as if the Newsweek story was lagging way behind what was already known all over the Middle East. No, it was because they had the damn digital pictures in their hands courtesy of the American press. Along with an incredibly unbelievable propaganda fantasy built with the bricks of the Newsweek piece.
Very few in the press understand- or even care – how sensitive the perception fight in COIN is, or how the LA Times’ straight-forward “story” can be manipulated overseas. They live in a world of democracy that I protect, and use that to sell newspapers at the expense of United States’ national goals. And U.S. citizen’s lives. I, for one, am getting a little sick of the press prancing around in a halo, reporting anything they want and passing it off as a “Watergate” impact that we have to hear because the “evil” military is covering something up, when it’s nothing more than salacious BS designed to generate money, exactly comparable to TMZ reporting on Tiger Woods crashing his SUV.
Well, exactly comparable if the Tiger Woods reports had caused real follow-on death and destruction.