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What the Media Doesn't Understand: How the Military Works

April 1, 2003

We are hearing much controversy about how the American and British media are reporting the war. Conservatives are railing that the reporters' left biases cause them to only focus on the negative. Though it is surely the case many times, I do not see the left bias as what is so frustrating about the media's reporting. I have come to expect it and work around it.
I see less bias than in the past because of the imbedded reporters approach the Pentagon devised. I stated in my Headlines We Will Never See column several months ago that starting in Vietnam, reporters have want the local Hyatt Regency and drinks after dinner when in a war zone versus Walter Cronkite, Ernie Pyle, and the recently deceased Bill Mauldin who lived, breathed, ate, slept, and performed bodily functions alongside the GIs. The imbedded reporters are much more like the WWII reporters than they are like the Vietnam reporters. They are living and breathing with our guys at the front. That reality does more to shatter liberal bias than a whole year of Washington conservative think tank forums or radio talk show ranting will ever do.

The reporting includes many maps, interesting graphics, and who are you and where are you from items, but as a veteran I see something very important still missing: any insight into our military, i.e., how it works. [I believe there are two reasons for this lack of insight: one is the nearly total lack of military experience in the reporter class (name one reporter who is a veteran!) and two, is the nearly total lack of military experience in the general public. I will write a future column on the latter.] Let's look at some examples of this missing piece.

The Sandstorm: One night on NBC, there was an interesting story about the yellow, then red, then pitch dark, then back to red sandstorm engulfing troops of the 3rd Infantry Division. The whole report was about the sandstorm and how it had stopped the division. Wrong, the division was not stopped. The real story was happening behind the reporter and he seemed fairly oblivious to it. Behind him during each severe stage of the storm, a group of GI mechanics was pulling an engine out of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle with a mobile crane, repairing the engine, and reinstalling it so the Bradley could once again fight. Now keep in mind, these are mainly 18-22 year old American boys doing this work under conditions unbelievably difficult if not impossible. Think of the 18-22 year old boys you know not in the military and ask yourself could they perform such a feat? That to me was the story the reporter should have given instead of holding chem lights in front of his face to show the lack of light in the storm.

Mind reading: "The Pentagon war plan had envisaged a lightning march on Baghdad, buoyed by popular support in the newly liberated south. The aim had been to provide a solid platform for the swift toppling of Saddam, possibly from within his inner circle." The London Times 3/27/03
Of course, the reporters have no clues as to the original plan. To claim otherwise is only an act of creating self-importance. I know from experience, the individual units have no clue as to the big picture. When I was in the Navy we did missions that made no sense to us at all. What we did know was what was expected of us and when it was expected. So we did it. At some higher level, though, we fitted into a bigger picture. The military leaders at that position would never explain their plan to a bunch of reporters.

The "Pause": Much has been made of the "Pause". Peter Arnett was fired because he said it showed the failure of the original plan. Anyone that thought we were going to dash to Baghdad and receive a hero's welcome has watched too many Bruce Willis movies. Our military is not reckless. Our military is operating in hostile environmental conditions. To be successful they have to slow or stop, regroup, do preventive maintenance, catch some sleep, re-supply, let the supply guys extend their base of operations closer to the front, etc. Notice as the reporters were wringing their hands about the "Pause" and questioned whether or not it was a sign of failure, what type of GI pictures did we suddenly start to see in abundance: GI's sleeping, on the ground, under vehicles, wrapped in ponchos, etc. That was my clue that the "Pause" issue was a manufactured issue from bored media folks who have no clues at how an army works.

"Rear attacks from the Hussein Fedayin were unexpected": This reporting amazed me. The attacks by these Iraqi "Brown Shirts" against support units behind the front lines was suppose to be an indication that the military leadership forgot or did not think this might happen. Is our military leadership stupid? NO. We were covering 100+ miles across the enemy's desert. The 3rd Infantry Division Mechanized, by definition, travels with its support. Support units do not stay 500 miles away and send the Infantry spare parts. They stay right behind them. (See the story above of the mechanics repairing an engine on the front lines.) The army learned something several years ago that the Marines have lived by for decades: Every member is a rifleman, the cooks, the pay clerks, the supply sergeants, … . To have pay clerks, supply sergeants, and cooks in action is not unexpected. The other aspect of the Fedayin that I suspect is that we want them to come out at us. They are the evil fanatics, like the Nazi Brown Shirts, that will never reform so must be destroyed.

"House-to-House fighting in Basra": Another under reported part of this war is the fact that most of the troops you see in the pictures and on the screen are 18-22 year old American and British boys and girls. They are better trained, fed, and equipped than the enemy. They are confident and competent. As in any war, they do the heavy lifting. We should be thankful for them. They are doing unbelievable acts every day. For example, the reporter with the Royal Marines in Basra missed a story of one of these young Brits even after his own cameraman filmed the event. The many scenes of the British Marines fighting in Basra showed patrols going house-to-house looking for enemy soldiers. The reporter missed the story of the young Brits we watched who kicked in the doors and were the first through every time. Is there a more nerve-racking scene as that? Who are these guys who do these acts of courage? We will not know. The reporter spent his airtime talking of Basra in the big picture while these scenes were shown to us. He missed the whole issue.

Overall, I am confident of our progress. We are going to win this war and it will change the face of the Mideast. Look at a map and you see that Israel and Afghanistan are becoming the democratic bookends to the region. Soon Iraq will be a democratic centerpiece.


Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.