The Magazine

Censoring Iraq

Why are there so few reporters with American troops in combat? Don't blame the media.

Oct 30, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 07 • By MICHAEL YON
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In a counterinsurgency, the media battlespace is critical. When it comes to mustering public opinion, rallying support, and forcing opponents to shift tactics and timetables to better suit the home team, our terrorist enemies are destroying us. Al Qaeda's media arm is called al Sahab: the cloud. It feels more like a hurricane. While our enemies have "journalists" crawling all over battlefields to chronicle their successes and our failures, we have an "embed" media system that is so ineptly managed that earlier this fall there were only 9 reporters embedded with 150,000 American troops in Iraq. There were about 770 during the initial invasion.

Many blame the media for the estrangement, but part of the blame rests squarely on the chip-laden shoulders of key military officers and on the often clueless Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, which doesn't manage the media so much as manhandle them. Most military public affairs officers are professionals dedicated to their jobs, but it takes only a few well-placed incompetents to cripple our ability to match and trump al Sahab. By enabling incompetence, the Pentagon has allowed the problem to fester to the point of censorship.

My experiences with the U.S. military as a soldier and then as a writer and photographer covering soldiers have been overwhelmingly positive, and I feel no shame in saying I am biased in favor of our troops. Even worse, I feel no shame in calling a terrorist a terrorist. I've seen their deeds and tasted air filled with burning human flesh from their bombs. I've seen terrorists kill children while our people risk their lives to save civilians again, and again, and again. I feel no shame in saying I hope that Afghanistan and Iraq "succeed," whatever that means. For that very reason, it would be a dereliction to remain silent about our military's ineptitude in handling the press. The subject is worthy of a book, but can't wait that long, lest we grow accustomed to a subtle but all too real censorship of the U.S. war effort.

I don't use the word lightly. Censorship is a hand grenade of an accusation, and a writer should be serious before pulling the pin. Indeed, some war-zone censorship for reasons of operational security is obviously desirable and important. No one can complain when Delta Force will not permit an embed. In fact, I have turned down offers to embed with some Special Operations forces because the limitations on what I could write would not be worth the danger and expense. But we can and should complain when authorities willfully limit war reporting. We should do so whether it happens as a matter of policy, or through incompetence or bureaucratic sloth. The result is the same in any case. And once the matter has been brought to the attention of the military and the Pentagon--which I have quietly done--and still the situation is not rectified, it is time for a public accounting.

For generations journalists have been allowed to "embed" with various U.S. military units, including infantry outfits. Infantry is perhaps the most dangerous, underpaid, and unglamorous job on the planet. Infantrymen are called grunts, trigger-pullers, cannon fodder, and ground-pounders. Long hours, low pay, and death, death, death. If they survive, they get a welcome-home party. Sometimes. And that's it: Thanks. In World War II, Korea, and Vietnam, reporters were given wide latitude to travel with the infantry, even if few could stand it for long. Up to last year, this war was no different. A journalist could stay out with the infantry for as long as he could take it. I spent most of 2005 in Iraq, and most of that was with infantry units in combat.

I went to Iraq initially at the behest of military friends who insisted that what Americans were seeing on the news wasn't an accurate reflection of the reality on the ground. Two of my friends died on consecutive days. When the charred remains of American contractors were strung from a bridge in Falluja, I put aside a book I was writing to attend the funerals. In Colorado we laid to rest a Special Forces friend who'd been killed in Samara; then on to Florida for the funeral of the friend who'd been murdered and mutilated in Falluja. A photo of the dang ling corpses won a Pulitzer.