Politics & Policy

Different Worlds

Crossing the military-media gap.

With the 82nd Airborne, Kuwait

After spending two weeks amongst the 82nd Airborne in the Persian Gulf, I can tell you that a lot of soldiers start out suspicious of reporters. And given the major media’s checkered record of interaction with the military, who can blame them?

#ad#Alas, many of the journalists observable in this war theater are bursting with knee-jerk suspicions and antagonisms for the warriors all around them. A significant number are whiny and appallingly soft. Most club together, passing far too much of their desert sojourn gossiping with fellow reporters, mocking military mores in snide jokes and wise-guy observations, chafing at the little disciplines required by the military’s life-and-death work, banding off as a group to watch DVDs on their computers in the evening, ganging separately in the mess hall during meals, rolling their eyes at each other when ideas like honor, sacrifice, or duty enter the conversation, and otherwise failing to take advantage of this unparalleled opportunity to enter deeply and perhaps sympathetically into the lives and minds of superlative fighting men.

I personally have not met a single journalist here who supports this intervention by our commander-in-chief. I know there are a few present, like Michael Kelly of The Atlantic, and some of those I’ve met could not be clearly categorized on the basis of gentle questioning. But the vast number of the reporters I’ve spoken to are openly scornful of this war’s aims and purposes.

In the first days of battle, the only thing that got the sustained respect and attention of the fellow scribes I’m bumping into each day was the apparent death of four journalists on March 22. At a lower level, there was astonished pique that the writers traveling with the Marines in the initial ground offensive had not been been given an opportunity to sleep for two full days! Of course, the Marines who were doing the fighting were not sleeping either. And a lot more than four servicemen have been killed. But they’re from another species.

Typical reporters know little about a fighting life. They show scant respect for the fighter’s virtues. Precious few could ever be referred to as fighting men themselves. The journalists embedded among U.S. forces that I’ve crossed paths with are fish out of water here, and show their discomfort clearly as they hide together in the press tents, fantasizing about expensive restaurants at home and plush hotels in Kuwait City, fondling keyboards and satellite phones with pale fingers, clinging to their world of offices and tattle and chatter where they feel less ineffective, less testosterone deficient, more influential.

It’s amusing on one level. But reporters are the interpreters for the rest of America of what’s real and what’s important in the world. And the vast politico-cultural gulf that separates most of them from martial ideals often produces portrayals of military work that are twisted in one fashion or another. A few nights ago, I listened as a writer for one big city newspaper dripped derision for the soldier’s life, squealed about the awfulness of President Bush abandoning U.N. babysitting of Saddam, and sniggered with a TV reporter at attempts to inspire “awe” through a bombing campaign. I almost wished there would be a very loud explosion very nearby just to shut up their rattling.

That same evening, I ran into the 82nd’s infantry commander here, washing his socks in a bucket by the taps where I was shaving. Colonel Arnold Bray is a 6’6” hulk with glistening black skin and a racing tongue and mind. As we strode along a dirt path under a full moon, he fretted about the security of secret information, and explained to me why he would launch a “very personal, very harsh vendetta” against any journalist who released advance intelligence that could endanger the lives of his men.

As we spoke, the ghostly form of two paratroopers approached us on the road. Suddenly the colonel stopped them.

“What are your names?” Replies darted back. “Where are you from?” More replies. Outlines of individual lives began to form. These were two human beings unlike any two others; somebody’s son, someone’s friend.

Then Bray turned to me. “They are why I take this so seriously. Men, carry on.”

Karl Zinsmeister is editor-in-chief of The American Enterprise.

  Karl Zinsmeister is the editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine. He formerly advised Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George W. Bush on domestic policy.

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