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A rumor of war

Michael Yon's embed with British forces was canceled for reasons that are still unclear. He writes in his latest post that "the British Ministry of Defence canceled my embed after today's dispatch.  Please Read "Bad Medicine". My own guess is that his dispatch was too high resolution for the British to be comfortable with, the question being in what respect. Bad Medicine is a textbook example of how a "journalist" should describe a combat scene. You get a sense of terrain, tactical advantages and disadvantages on each side, morale and fire support. You get almost none of these in your standard journalist's report.

Yon talks about Afghans who patrol with sandals and scrawny dogs, the comical misunderstandings of the battlefield, about civilians who know about Michael Jackson but have never heard of Canada, which kinds of fire support the troops like best , the primitiveness of French airplanes and the valor of their pilots, of British amusement at Southern accents, of the lethality of Death From Above, at what the British Army feels like to be surrounded in perpetuity, about how men who step on bombs disappear never to be found again. He describes a terrain flat as a billiard table, intersected by fifteen foot thick walls that make it like fighting in a maze, with no high ground. In short, he describes the war like a journalist who is also an ex-special forces soldier. And that makes him dangerous from a public relations point of view.

I suspect it is because he doesn't tell a simple story. He talks about unglamorous death; about Taliban successes and failures; about Taliban gains and the Taliban loss of civilian popularity. In short, about things that are hard to understand, contradictions that have yet to be understood; and yes, about "smashing". On paragraph goes:

Finally, Axle said, “You Yanks are great. You like to hear stories about us smashin’ the Taliban but people at home want to know how much we miss our families.” We both chuckled, and I asked, “Really? They don’t ask you about smashing the Taliban?” “That’s right,” then Axle said something like, “They only want to hear how sad we are.” Axle and I got along great because I didn’t care if he missed his family and he didn’t care if I missed mine. This part is about smashing people who would help those who smashed the World Trade Centers and blew up people in London and Bali and Jakarta and Israel and Spain and the Philippines and anywhere else they can reach. There is a crucial development and governance aspect to this war, and still a crucial smashing side. Sometimes you’ve got to swap hats for helmets. Mullah Omar is still alive, apparently in Pakistan, and he needs to be killed. Just on 20 August I heard a Taliban singing over a walkie talkie that Mullah Omar “Is our leader,” and they were celebrating shooting down a British helicopter only twelve hours before just some miles from here. There will be time to hug families later. Now is a time for fighting.

In 1942 newspapers ran a picture of US troops half sunk in death on the sand of some Pacific beach. It caused a scandal on the home front, not because it wasn't true or there weren't Japanese in the same state, but because politicians don't like complicated narratives. They want simple talking points and this often goes for both sides of the ideological divide. Afghans are probably funny and vicious, depending on the circumstances. War is hell but the enemy is nasty. Victory is great, but what you must do to achieve it is often unpleasant. War isn't made for television; it can't be framed or storyboarded. So for whatever reason, Michael Yon is off the British embed. Our view into the battlefield can be degraded again, down from HD to VGA, and we can go back to reading the simple morality tales that much of journalism had to offer.

But in its own small way, I think the Yon incident raises the core problem of fighting terrorism in the 21st century: the need to be able to take responsibility for our actions; the need to recognize the tradeoffs that are necessary to living in this world. We don't like to see what we have to do. In the words of one politician, we count on others to do the "right thing" only please don't tell us about it. In the childhood of the 20th century many of us were taught we could have safety without sacrifice, news without the truth, war without guilt, intelligence without cost. Today we know that we can't. But maybe we can't say that without declaring ourselves a danger to ourselves.


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