How Long is a Piece of String?

Michael Yon is angry again and for good reason. He has noticed that there has been a lack of embedded reporters in Iraq – there were just nine when he wrote his piece, Censoring Iraq, and only two of them were reporting primarily to the American public. He names names too, singling out Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, the director of the Combined Press Information Center, as the person who is blocking his and other reporter’s attempts to embed in Iraq. Yon also says what is going on is censorship beyond the requirements of operational security.

The government has no right to withhold information or to deny access to our combat forces just because that information might anger, frighten, or disturb us.

By allowing only a trickle of news to come out of Iraq, when all involved parties know the flow could be more robust, the Pentagon is doing just that. Although the conspicuous media vacuum can be partly explained by the danger–Iraq is arguably more dangerous for journalists than Vietnam or even World War II, when reporters were allowed to land on D-Day–some of the few who will risk it all are denied access for no good reason.

This information blockade is occurring at the same time that the Pentagon is outsourcing millions of dollars to public relations firms to shape the news. This half-baked effort has the unintended consequence of putting every reporter who files a positive story under scrutiny as a possible stooge. A fraction of those dollars spent on increasing transportation support might persuade more reporters to request an embed.

Michael Yon isn’t alone in this view. Michael Fumento, in an article originally published in the National Review on the differences between embedded reporting and journalism done from hotels using stringers writes.

Patrick Dollard, with no military training, left a cushy job as Oscar-winning director Steven Soderberghs agent to bunk down with Marines in Ramadi for seven months to film a documentary series (still being edited) that he hopes will show the real war and the real warriors.
In February, a Humvee he was traveling in hit a massive IED, which shredded the vehicle and killed two of the three Marines aboard. Dollard was injured and hospitalized. But he had a mission, and was quickly back on the job. The next month, another IED blast injured him, less seriously. Then . . . right back to work. Dollards experiences alone put the Baghdad press corps to shame. But he insisted to me that exchanging Hollywood for a hellhole wasn’t as hard as you’d imagine. I had to feel the moral imperative to go, and clearly I did feel it, he said.

The sad truth is that the mainstream media have no interest in covering the Iraq War for what it is, observes Dollard. He says they are interested in Iraq only so far as it is useful as a weapon against their self-imagined mortal political enemy, George W. Bush. The embeds, however, want the real picture and we want to tell the truth about it to the world.

Shutting down the embeds and blocking the milbloggers as I discussed here earlier this week tells me that the Administration and the military are grabbing for the familiar. They are trying to apply 20th century censorship and public relations techniques to a 21st century war. Ironically, it was Donald Rumsfeld who told Bob Woodward in State of Denial that a key issue for the US military was to stop fighting a 21st century war with the tools of industrial age. The hotel based reporters are pumping out their quagmire message and there are clear signs of discouragement coming from Iraqi bloggers and many people like myself who have been strong supporters of the war. It is pretty clear even when the predictable negative reporting is discounted that things are not going well.

At the risk of being overly obvious, I get the distinct impression that the flow of real news has slowed down because the Administration plan isn’t working very well. The Iraqi forces, particularly the police, are not ready to replace American troops and the Iraqi Army, although more reliable, is not up to the task either. More problematic is the disunity of the Iraqi government, which is made up of factions some of which are part of the insurgency. Even our best allies, the Kurds, are more interested in a separate state than in working for a successful Iraq. This lack of unity on security destroys the motivation of the police and Army to fight for the central government rather than the particular factions to which they are connected. I think that the Administration and the military are trying to sweep these problems under the rug – particularly in the run up to the mid term election. They believe the American people don’t have the stomach for the fight, but I feel they are dead wrong. We are saddled with one party that doesn’t want to fight at all and one in power that is afraid to really fight when the chips are down. What does it take to win a war? How long is a piece of string? It takes what it takes – you can’t manage victory, you have to fight for it.

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