Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

So we have another dispatch from Korengal, this time by the Wall Street Journal’s Yochi Dreazen.

The Khe Sanh-style fighting in this godforsaken valley seems to draw American journalists like honey. First Sebastian Junger went there and wrote an unfocused and meandering reportage that lacked both passion and detail and was dwarfed by Tim Hetherington’s powerful photos. Then Elizabeth Rubin of the New York Times ventured in, spent weeks with the tired men of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team and came back with what is probably the best piece of journalism to come out of Afghanistan since 9/11.

So, with the ultimate Korengal story already written, why do it again?

Because that’s what we do. We read each other’s stuff, follow each other’s breadcrumbs and rarely delve deep into our subjects even when they occupy us for years. When Time ran a bleak story on Mosul’s COP Rabiya last February, every embed wanted to be there, regardless of what was happening across the river in eastern Mosul. For a while, Baquba was shit hot, then Arab Jabour. In Afghanistan, Garmser is suddenly the place to be, even though the Brits have been slugging it out with the Taleban over there for years. (The Limeys, too, got to enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame, but not before Prince Harry’s heroic two-month deployment.)

I’ll repeat myself: we desperately need a Nir Rosen or a Patrick Cockburn to poke his nose into these places. This is now more important than ever, as attention shifts from Iraq, which has become way too complicated for general media consumption, to Afghanistan, where, as Abu Muqawama’s Kip pointed out, bad shit has been happening at least since 2005, but no one cared.

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I have serious issues with Christopher Hitchens’s waterboarding.

More precisely, Hitchens can have himself waterboarded to hell for all I care, but the Vanity Fair story is crappy journalism.

Here’s why:

It makes no sense. Hitchens goes to great lengths to explain the faulty logic behind waterboarding terror suspects, but nowhere does he explain why he himself did it.

I’m serious. Nowhere.

Did he do it to find out what it feels like? If so, my question is this: what sort of a person needs to have himself tortured to empathise with the real victims?

Did he do it to prove that waterboarding is indeed torture, regardless of what Bush says? If so, I’ve got to ask: does any sane person really need Hitchens’s trickery to believe it’s inhuman to pour water into someone’s nose until he’s about to drown?

Did he do it to show remorse, as is his habit, for supporting neocon stupidity? If so, let’s commend him for the gesture and hope that next time he’ll suffer his pangs of contrition in private.

Or did he do it just to prove to himself he can withstand at least as much pain as the al-Qaeda detainees he loathes?

Inane as it sounds, I’m afraid this is the most plausible explanation for Hitchens’s egotistical nonsense.

How else do you explain stuff like this:

I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

This is because I had read that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, invariably referred to as the ‘mastermind’ of the atrocities of September 11, 2001, had impressed his interrogators by holding out for upwards of two minutes before cracking. (By the way, this story is not confirmed. My North Carolina friends jeered at it. ‘Hell,’ said one, ‘from what I heard they only washed his damn face before he babbled.’) But, hell, I thought in my turn, no Hitchens is going to do worse than that. Well, O.K., I admit I didn’t outdo him.


The interrogators would hardly have had time to ask me any questions, and I knew that I would quite readily have agreed to supply any answer. I still feel ashamed when I think about it.

Journalistic experiments don’t have to be cheap stunts. But there is always a fair amount of self-indulgence in these first-person escapades. I should know. I’ve lived in an empty bear cage in the Helsinki zoo for a week to find out what it feels like to be gaped at and spat on. Once I sat for a week in a broom closet four storeys underground with the Internet as my only companion to prove it’ll drive you nuts. In the end, the only thing I proved was that even a young man’s endurance has its limits. It’s ego tripping. But at least you can be honest about it.

Hitchens, however, never comes clean. Evidently the editors of Vanity Fair believe he is such a strong brand that no explanations are needed, as if his name alone could validate any bullshit. Witness the blurb: “Watch Christopher Hitchens Get Waterboarded”. Indeed, waterboarding is not the story here, nor the abuse of human rights by the world’s greatest democracy — it’s Me, Myself and Christopher.

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I have added an ‘Articles’ section, see above.

Approach at your own risk. They’re mood pieces.

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Blood and Treasure is sending traffic my way. Cheers!

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This must surely rank as one of the most useless pieces of non-research ever.

Titled “Is There an ‘Emboldenment’ Effect? Evidence from the Insurgency in Iraq”, the Harvard study, by Radha Iyengar and Jonathan Monten, concludes:

Using data on attacks and variation in access to international news across Iraqi provinces, we identify an ‘emboldenment’ effect by comparing the rate of insurgent attacks in areas with higher and lower access to information about U.S news after public statements critical of the war. We find that in periods after a spike in war-critical statements, insurgent attacks increases by 7-10 percent, but that this effect dissipates within a month. Additionally, we find that insurgents shift attacks from Iraqi civilian to U.S. military targets following new information about the United States’ sensitivity to costs, resulting in more U.S. fatalities but fewer deaths overall. These results suggest that there is a small but measurable cost to open public debate in the form of higher attacks in the short-term, and that Iraqi insurgent organizations – even those motivated by religious or ideological goals – are strategic actors that respond rationally to the expected probability of US withdrawal.

I’ve heard this argument so many times before: that Western democracies are hampered in war by the very strengths that make them so good at peace, namely openness and tolerance of dissent; that, in fact, modern warfare is asymmetrical not just because only one side plays by the rules but because that side also argues in public. We’ve even had this discussion in Finland. Some fat pencil pushers up at Defence Command have on occasion crawled into the open to argue that public debate puts our troops in Afghanistan at risk, because the Taleban “target the weak”, and that, God forbid, were Finland to pull out of ISAF, we should do it swiftly and in secret.

In fact the opposite is true. It’s exactly because of the vigorous public discourse that the U.S. has been able to execute mission-saving course corrections in Iraq even after disastrous mistakes. Take Abu Ghraib, for example. One can always argue that a scandal like this is poison to any war effort. But just imagine what would’ve happened if the boneheaded and inhuman detention policies would’ve been allowed to continue. Without the public outcry, how many thousands more Iraqis would’ve been pushed by brainless jailors like England and Graner to turn to Salafi expats for justice? Thanks to the media scrutiny, the U.S. military was forced to lance the boil and apply a bandaid, and today it’s a different story.

Even the Harvard pseudo-study admits as much:

Public criticism and policy reviews may [...] be net beneficial if the resulting improvements in strategy produce an overall reduction in attacks and fatalities.


Without knowing how to weigh the gains from open debate against the cost of revealing information about the US sensitivity to costs, it is not possible to determine if public criticism is on balance bad.

I agree. There are no quantitative means to measure the effects of public opinion on a military adventure. Thankfully, some things in our civil society are still intangible.

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Carlotta Gall of NYT is embedding with the Anbar-hardened Marines in Garmser and is reporting that the young platoon leaders are putting their Iraq experience to good use:

As a first step, the marines promised to provide a strong security cordon so those villagers who had fled could return without fear to rebuild their homes and reopen the bazaar.

When on patrol, the marines carry a small gadget the size of an old Polaroid camera that takes fingerprints, photos and an iris scan of people they meet. It is used to build a database of the residents so they can easily spot strangers, the marines say. The Afghans accepted the imposition without protest.

A couple of things make me suspicious.

First is the “Marines saved NATO’s ass” narrative now in vogue with American reporters. We desperately need a Nir Rosen or a Patrick Cockburn in Afghanistan, an intrepid Pashtu-speaking free agent to go and check things out. Before that happens, I’ll have a hard time buying this particular “things are looking up” meme.

Secondly, I wonder if our new-found love for COIN has blinded us from seeing the obvious: no matter what their education, GIs ain’t social workers. From what I remember about Afghans, cordoning off a village and fingerprinting everybody maybe isn’t such a great idea if you want to keep the Taleban at bay. Particularly since the Marines are going to pull out in a few months, leaving the “collaborators” screwed for good.

Related: Seth G. Jones has a new 177-page monograph out at RAND titled “Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan”. Haven’t read it yet, download at your own risk.

UPDATE: For a more intelligent take on the Gall story, visit Registan.

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The fall issue of the Australian Army Journal carries two heartfelt and provocative articles by distinguished Army officers decrying the diminished role of the Australian infantry in war fighting. Their point is that offensive Australian operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan are now mostly carried out by Special Forces, with the infantry relegated to force protection and support. Which obviously pisses them off.

Both articles are worth reading to understand a typical inter-service debate, but they hardly qualify for banner headlines like “Australian soldiers ‘ashamed’ at lack of action in Iraq and Afghanistan” (The Times) or “Australian troops ‘scorned’ for low-risk missions: officer” (AFP), trawled from single sentences and shamelessly ripped out of context.

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In today’s New York Times, David Carr laments the lack of media attention to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There’s plenty of blame to go around: battle fatigue at home, failing media resolve and a government intent on controlling information from the battlefield.

Okay, but how about the quality of the stories? Are you really doing your damnest to keep the readers interested? Are you sure your writing isn’t a little bland, your narrative structures chopped from the same block? What if you just sound too newspapery to elicit more than a yawn?

(Look elsewhere for answers.)

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There is a new study out by sociologist Andrew Lindner about the Pentagon embed program’s effects on our Iraq coverage. The conclusion:

[...] The [...] program [...] channeled reporters toward producing war coverage from the soldier’s point of view.

Ya think??

Anyway, read for yourself. And if you’re interested, here’s a story I wrote last year after embedding with the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad.

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Last July, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt wrote in a column titled “Seeing Al Qaeda Around Every Corner”:

While a president running out of time and policy options may want to talk about a single enemy that Americans hate and fear in the hope of uniting the country behind him, journalists have the obligation to ask tough questions about the accuracy of his statements.

Hoyt was concerned that in reporting on the violence in Iraq, his newspaper was increasingly using the administration’s politically motivated shorthand. The Times, Hoyt wrote, “has slipped into a routine of quoting the president and the military uncritically about Al Qaeda’s role in Iraq — and sometimes citing the group itself without attribution.”

And in using the language of the administration, the newspaper has also failed at times to distinguish between Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, and Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, an Iraqi group that didn’t even exist until after the American invasion.

The Times has since reformed. But others haven’t.

One of the worst offenders, incredibly, is the Baghdad bureau of Reuters, probably the most trusted news organisation in the world.

In today’s story about Mosul, for example, Al-Qaeda is mentioned nine times.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, leading an offensive against al Qaeda in the north, offered cash and freedom from prosecution on Friday to fighters who give up their weapons within 10 days.

Maliki made the amnesty offer in the northern city of Mosul, where he has been supervising a U.S.-backed campaign aimed at delivering a fatal blow to Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in the city and surrounding Nineveh province.

Many al Qaeda gunmen have regrouped in Nineveh after being pushed out of Baghdad and other areas. The U.S. military says Mosul is al Qaeda’s last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

And so on.

In reality, of course, no one knows who the gunmen are. They probably include foreign jihadists, local Baathists, Sunni nationalists, as well as gangsters and disaffected refugees. AQI is but one of dozens of insurgent groups, and probably no longer even the most dangerous. In West Mosul, for example, you can pay a guy 10 bucks and he’ll throw an IED in a plastic bag in the middle of the road. Does that make him al-Qaeda?

I’m sure the Reuters crew, excellent journalists all, is well aware of this. So why the sloppy jargon? I wish I knew. But the next time the Baghdad press corps gathers in the CPIC parking garage for an MNF-I news conference, I hope it goes more like this:

Spokesperson: We have information that Al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack.
Reporter: You mean Al-Qaeda as in ‘Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda’?
Spokesperson: I mean Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Reporter: How do you know it was Al-Qaeda in Iraq?
Spokesperson: Well, it has all the hallmarks of…
Reporter: How do you know it wasn’t IAI?
Spokesperson: I…
Reporter: Mujahidin Army?
Spokesperson: But…
Reporter: Ansar al-Sunna? Shield of Islam Brigade?

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