Amid its entertaining invective, this week’s very nasty, very British spat over coverage of the Iraqi war has raised an interesting -- and not inconsequential -- journalistic question: Have the 246 journalists embedded with the allied forces undergone the sort of mind-altering experience that will change the way future conflicts are reported?
The quarrel began Monday, when Air Marshal Brian Burridge, who commands British forces in the gulf, bluntly told an interviewer from the Daily Telegraph that he is deeply frustrated with his country’s news media, particularly the commentators and analysts. (When it comes to matters touching on defense and the military, the Telegraph is Britain’s ideological equivalent of Fox News.)
“The U.K. media has lost the plot,” Burridge said. “You stand for nothing; you support nothing; you criticize; you drip. It’s a spectator sport to criticize anybody or anything, and what the media says fuels public expectation.... If you look at what fills newspapers now, it’s the equivalent of reality TV. There’s very little news reporting; there’s very little analysis, but there’s a lot of conjecture.”
Burridge went on to express his hope that having “tasted combat,” Britain’s younger generation of now-embedded reporters will take a different view of future military operations.
His criticisms were seconded by the Telegraph’s defense editor, John Keegan, the eminent military historian who long occupied the chair in that subject at Sandhurst, the U.K.'s West Point. Burridge is correct about Britain’s news media, Keegan wrote, and right to hope for better in wars to come. “He looks forward to a future stage of peacemaking when the young journalists who have been embedded in coalition units will use that experience to propagate a new military reality for the benefit of the public at home.
“The older media generation, particularly those covering the war from comfortable television studios, has not covered itself with glory. Deeply infected with antiwar feeling and left-wing antipathy to the use of force as means of doing good, it has once again sought to depict the achievements of the West’s servicemen as a subject of disapproval.
“The brave young American and British servicemen -- and women -- who have risked their lives to bring down Saddam have every reason to feel that there is something corrupt about their home-based media.”
In an interview in which he denounced commentators and reporters from the BBC and Britain’s Channel 4 by name, Keegan said, “There has been some very, very good reporting from the front, but the level of analysis is abysmal.... I don’t know what people are doing. I think they think with their kneecaps. Military analysis is a perfectly simple business. Newspapers employ City [financial] analysts who are expected to know how the City works. Why can’t they do the same with the military?”
According to Keegan, many media commentators are crippled by their education: “It’s a generational thing.... They all did sociology degrees.... They have no capacity for analysis. They’re all a product of the touchy-feely world of the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Bring back the stiff upper lip and the lash, by God -- though perhaps embeddedness will do.
“We’re getting a new generation who’ve been out in the field and have been shot at, and they will be the future generation,” said Keegan, 73, who never has been in combat due to a childhood illness.
Former Los Angeles Times reporter William Tuohy, now writing military history from London, is one of his generation’s most experienced combat correspondents. He spent four year in Vietnam, where he won the Pulitzer Prize.
Unlike Keegan, he sees nothing new in the current situation, “only the newly minted Pentagon word, ‘embedded.’ ” In previous wars, according to Tuohy, “field correspondents generally linked up with various outfits, even at squad levels. In World War II, Ernie Pyle and other reporters, such as A.J. Leibling and John Hersey, were certainly partial to the units to which they were assigned or happened to join. Similarly in Korea....
“I spent time with the 26 Marines in Khe Sanh in 1968. I admired their stoicism under siege, from the grunts on the lines to their regimental boss, Col. David Lownds, in his command bunker. Did I write about them favorably? Indeed. Was I somehow suborned or changed by being embedded with them? I don’t think so.”
During the battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive of early 1968, Tuohy said, he was with D Company of the 5th Marine Regiment. “Charley Mohr of the New York Times and David Greenway of Time magazine and I watched their fight, their ranks whittled away with no replacements joining up, the exhaustion beginning to tell. We helped carry wounded out of the enemy mortar and RPG kill zone. You might say we were embedded.”
What about Burridge and Keegan’s stress on the singularly antiwar views of what might be termed “the Vietnam generation?”
Susan Pinkus, director of the Times Poll, has found that when it comes to war on Iraq, there are only slight differences between that generation’s views and those of younger and older Americans. For example, 23% of respondents age 45 to 64 -- the so-called “late boomers” -- opposed the war on Iraq, but so did 29% of those over 65. Among respondents 18 to 35, only 16% were opposed.
Still, said Pinkus, “perhaps the Vietnam War shaped late boomers’ attitudes about war because they are more inclined to say we should not take military action against Syria or Iran.” According to the Times Poll, half of those age 45 to 64 are against an attack on Syria, while 44% oppose one on Iran; respondents over 65 were opposed to both prospects by even wider margins. People between the ages of 18 and 35 favored military action against Syria (55%) and Iran (63%).
“The younger group’s mind-set,” Pinkus said, “has been shaped by the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and now this war, which has been pretty successful.”
Her findings suggest that age, and the experience of numerous conflicts -- rather than vague touchy-feeling inclinations -- diminish people’s expectations about what Keegan calls “the use of force for doing good.”