Lone Gun in War Reporting
More than one U.S. senator endorsed him. So did retired Lt. Col. Oliver North and platoons of American fighting men and women. Actor Bruce Willis called him the only correspondent “telling the truth about what’s happening in the war in Iraq.”
Michael Yon may not be a household name, but he emerged last year as the reporter of choice for many conservatives and supporters of the war. His blog inspired so much buzz that by last month only 83 other blogs, out of about 26 million on the Internet, received more links from other websites.
Yon’s emergence from obscurity is emblematic of Internet-age journalism, in which a lone writer with little experience can build a significant following by deeply mining a specialized niche. In the blogosphere, opinions fly with abandon. Unconventional characters thrive who would make the mainstream media blanch.
What big newspaper or television network, after all, would have taken a chance on a self-taught war correspondent who once killed a man in a barroom fight, and whose last venture had him pursuing an American cannibal around the globe?
Would the mainstream media have kept him on the job after the day he grabbed a soldier’s rifle (during an alley fight in Mosul) and fired off several rounds at the enemy?
Even Yon, a 41-year-old former Green Beret, can’t quite put a name to the job he created. Part journalist, part entrepreneur, part soldier of fortune, he sometimes infuriated his military handlers with his blog (www.michaelyon-online.com), even as it gave American soldiers a robust new voice.
On Jan. 30, 2005, election day in Iraq, most mainstream reporters were trying to capture the sweep of the war-ravaged nation’s first tentative stab at democracy.
Michael Yon concentrated on what was right in front of him -- the minute-by-minute tally of exploding mortars and small-arms fire; the chatter from an Army radio (“Cobra Six reports polling station tango hotel zero two has been vacated”) and hundreds of Iraqis braving gunfire to cast their ballots.
That convinced Yon the new democracy could work. “One day, when Iraqi children read about their history, the courage of their parents on January 30, 2005, will fill them with awe,” he wrote.
Over the next 10 months, that came to be Yon’s voice: hard-boiled narration juxtaposed with sentimental and sweeping commentary.
Most intelligence about the enemy “comes from detainees, who cough up their [comrades] like cats choking on hairballs,” he wrote. On night patrol, he told of “creeping through stinking alleys ... bringing worry to men who should be worried.”
His reports mainly came from his months embedded with the 24th Infantry Regiment.
The “Deuce Four” saw plenty of bloody urban fighting while bringing order to the city of Mosul. The unit lost 16 of about 700 men, with 181 wounded.
Yon became a champion of the unit and particularly its commander, Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, a charismatic West Point graduate who describes himself as “a glass-three-quarters-full sort of person.” That optimistic outlook infused Yon’s dispatches.
While a New York Times reporter found Iraqi security forces struggling with dishonesty and internecine rivalries, for instance, Yon described the same forces as having great promise.
“Amazingly, these Iraqis continue to load up in those little trucks and go to work, knowing the odds are that they will, sooner or later, get shot or blown up,” Yon reported of the Iraqi police in October.
“The only true martyrs I’ve seen in Iraq are these men, ordinary in most respects, who step forward and put everything on the line for the idea of Iraq.”
As Yon’s profile grew, so did disagreements on the Internet about his work.
David Wallace-Wells wrote in Slate that Yon “combines detailed, intimate storytelling with an authorial sense that the war is neither quagmire nor farce, but a heroic, Manichaean struggle -- and, as such, deserves to be reported in the grizzled, noirish style of war reportage from earlier eras.”
But Carl Prine of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, a National Guardsman and former Marine, saw platitudes, thin reporting and a lack of context in Yon’s work.
“As someone who has seen a great deal of combat in my life and who earns his daily bread as a reporter,” Prine opined on the Internet, “I can assure you that a lot of what Michael Yon writes is misleading, inaccurate and vapid.”
The blogger’s alreadyincreasing popularity jumped sharply in May, after his report on a bomber’s attack as children greeted soldiers in an armored Stryker vehicle.
Yon snapped pictures of Maj. Mark Bieger cradling a mortally wounded Iraqi girl, Farah, her tiny burned legs poking out from the blanket swaddling her body.
The Army released the photo and wire services distributed it worldwide. Several commentators said it synthesized the suffering of the Iraqi people and the empathy of American troops. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) read what she called Yon’s “honest and inspiring” story on the Senate floor.
The buzz on the Internet increased to a low roar. Last spring, fewer than 5,000 blogs received more Internet links than Yon’s. By last month, Yon received more links (from 2,400 other sites) than all but 83 blogs, according to Technorati.com.
“I did do work that reverberated around the world,” Yon said.
Although the profusion of links gives an indication of Yon’s growing popularity, the blogger has yet to draw an audience as large as many traditional news outlets, which measure their traffic in millions. His blog has not hit the threshold of 360,000 distinct monthly users to be tracked by Nielsen/NetRatings.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Yon’s perspective on Iraq stood apart, given where he started.
Liberal arts educations and journalism degrees are standard issue for much of the press corps. Yon attended community college and never studied journalism. He describes mostly raising himself in Winter Haven, Fla., saying he was a prankster who got into scrapes and detonated homemade bombs for kicks.
After graduation, he joined the Army to earn money for college. But he liked being a soldier and emerged at 19 as part of an elite Special Forces team. Short, blond and prone to snapping off dozens of pull-ups on a challenge, the soldier earned the nickname “Bam Bam,” after the “Flintstones” character.
Yon describes his ascent -- and the event that nearly put a catastrophic end to his military career -- in a self-published autobiography, “Danger Close.”
Out for a night in Ocean City, Md., to celebrate the end of his Special Forces training, Yon was taunted by a bar patron for his short haircut. When his adversary cornered him at the bar, Yon responded with several sharp punches that killed him.
Yon considered fleeing to Mexico but instead turned himself in, his autobiography says. Witnesses said the dead man had been the aggressor. Second-degree murder charges were reduced, then dropped, months later.
Yon would describe Ocean City as “a place where the journey ended for one man, and nearly for me.”
After leaving the Army in 1987 and attending college, he launched a series of business ventures. But they floundered or proved unfulfilling.
It was not until the mid-1990s, Yon said, that he began to discover himself through writing. He began with his life story. But an abiding wanderlust led him to other topics.
The oddest permutation came in late 2002 -- when his travels in India spurred his curiosity about the Aghori, a religious sect that eats human flesh, believing it can hold off old age and confer mystical powers.
Yon tells of crisscrossing the globe several times in pursuit of one acolyte from Texas. He suspected the “American cannibal” had committed murders in San Francisco and Hawaii.
Yon passed his suspicions on to the FBI. But he concedes that some who heard the cannibal story thought, “Mike has gone over the friggin’ top with this.”
He was still mulling over the Aghori mystery when news came that two friends, one from high school and the other from the Army, had been killed in Iraq.
“I felt bad,” Yon said. “I am going around chasing cannibals and doing pretty much worthless things.... And my friends are over there fighting and dying.”
The deaths galvanized Yon. He contacted an Army officer he’d known in high school, who in turn put Yon in touch with a commander in Iraq. That got him a ticket to Baqubah.
From the start, Yon ignored the barriers that traditionally separated the press from its subjects. He openly rooted for soldiers and helped them collect the wreckage after roadside bombings.
In a crisis last summer, the fuzzy boundary between Yon and the troops seemed to disappear altogether. The incident began with a miles-long pursuit through Mosul, ending with Lt. Col. Kurilla being shot three times by an attacker who hid inside a shop.
In Yon’s account, confirmed by others present, the two soldiers closest at hand froze. Sgt. Maj. Robert Prosser appeared and charged into the shop, toward the enemy. But it appeared to Yon that Prosser too went down.
Yon had already screamed at the unmoving soldiers to attack. Now he called to them for a grenade, which they did not have. So he picked up Prosser’s empty M-4 rifle, loaded in a 30-round magazine, and fired three shots into the shop.
Yon learned later that Prosser was choking the attacker into unconsciousness.
One of Yon’s shots punctured a barbecue-sized propane canister, which went flying wildly. The confusion actually gave the insurgent a moment to fight back before he was finally subdued.
“When we got back to the [base], I said, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ ” Prosser recalled. “And he said, ‘I was only trying to help.’ I understood. But from a military perspective, I just cannot have him picking up a weapon.”
The blogger had already been feuding with some of the Army’s media apparatus, having accused public affairs officers of distributing copies of his empathetic photo of the soldier and the injured girl Farah without permission. That meant Yon initially received little credit or compensation.
In one dispatch, he attacked the Army for withholding information from him, only to release it to mainstream reporters behind the front lines -- reporters he believed understood less about the conflict.
The unauthorized firing of the M-4 was just the latest Yon demerit.
When the blogger left Iraq for a break and then tried to return in September, the Army said no. Lt. Col. Steven Boylan wrote to Yon, telling him he had violated his embed agreement, which requires withholding photos of dead and injured soldiers until their family members had been notified.
He also said Yon needed an affiliation with an established news outlet, something Yon had skirted when he first arrived in the country.
By now, however, Yon had a considerable following inside and outside the military.
“Surely we cannot be so stupid as to stop the only person who is reporting that we are making progress and winning in Iraq,” Kurilla, on the mend from his wounds back home, wrote to several other officers in an e-mail. The 24th’s commander added: “Mike Yon is the only one who is helping us win the media war and win over the American public.”
That helped clear one obstacle. Then a contract to write for the conservative Weekly Standard magazine gave Yon the media affiliation he needed.
In recent weeks, Yon has been conducting interviews in the United States. He plans to complete a book about his experiences by May. Actor Willis has said the dispatches might inspire a movie.
Yon’s high profile on the Internet may have borne additional fruit this week: After an e-mail campaign by several other bloggers, the Army agreed to a tentative settlement of the dispute over the Farah photo. Yon said he would get cash and assurances that future work from Iraq would be protected from unauthorized distribution.
Still, he conceded an ambivalence about returning to the war.
“I don’t really look forward to it. I think: If I go back, I could lose my legs or I could lose my life. And I like my life,” Yon said. “But there is nobody else doing it.... Maybe I could get out with the Marines. Because I know they are fighting like crazy.”