July 1, 2006  

Mind the gap

Hadithah and civil-military relations

The alleged massacre of civilians by U.S. Marines in Hadithah, Iraq, touched off a firestorm of accusations in the American press and body politic. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said the Marines killed “in cold blood” in response to the pressure of the war, and cited the incident as a justification for immediate pullout. The Nation threw down the editorial when it declared that “this was not the work of soldiers gone berserk” but a “willful, targeted brutality designed to send a message to Iraqis.” No surprise that the furor has received a strong response from the milblogging community.

Greyhawk at the Mudville Gazette tears into The Associated Press and The New York Times among others for using the word “unprovoked” to describe the killings in Hadithah. He argues that the term was not used by U.S. officials to describe the killings and that it is inaccurate: “[Un]less there was no bomb, unless Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas wasn’t really killed, unless Lance Cpl. James Crossan wasn’t really wounded, there was a provocation that the Marines responded to.”

Likewise, Patriot at A Soldier’s Perspective writes that his “frustration is the amount of political posturing going on to bury the Marines before all the facts are out. … They are in Iraq and can’t just run to the media in the middle of an OPEN investigation and give their side of the story.”

T.F. Boggs, a reserve sergeant in Mosul, is even more embittered when he wonders whether it is “too much to ask that the Marines be given a fair trial before lowlifes like John Murtha condemn them in the court of public opinion?”

Not the entire milblogging community is content to circle the wagons against the military’s accusers. “Dr. Kenneth Noisewater,” a paratrooper from MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., points to Greyhawk’s piece and cries foul that “nearly every prominent military blog is not only trying to downplay the incident, but justify it as well.”

He concludes by declaring that he is finished with the milblog ring because the community has crossed the line between “‘telling our story’ and being a mouthpiece for right-wing propaganda.”

Grim, a Mudville Gazette regular, defends the milblogging community against “[t]he notion that those of us who won’t join in the ready condemnation are trying to find a way to excuse or justify ‘what happened.’

“The opposite is true, twice: first, because we are simply not sure what did happen, and wish to know for certain before we condemn Marines. Second, because what we are doing is preparing ourselves how to hold our own accountable. … If it comes to it, and the charges are proven, we will support what must be done. … But we will not, and should not, rush to condemn. We will hope as long as there is reason for hope. And we will not look kindly on those Americans who feel no such sense of brotherhood with our Marines, nor on those who seem so eager for an evil to appear.”

The Hadithah incident has raised issues that I have previously danced around — namely that the milblog community (especially its most popular sites) is extremely partisan and hostile toward the so-called “mainstream media.” And this raises some major, troubling questions.

If the milbloggers write as though they are under siege, they are. The blogosphere has lowered the price of entry to all news, be it good, bad or fake, and now every night is fight night. The blogosphere in general has become the center of partisan political debate in the U.S., with competing liberal and conservative bloggers arguing their perspectives across the political agenda.

On the question of the war in Iraq, this debate tends to be especially personal and has been joined by more than one dishonest participant.

For example, a washed-out U.S. Army recruit named Jesse Macbeth recently appeared in an online anti-war video in which he claimed to have slaughtered some 200 civilians in Iraq under orders as an Army Ranger. The claims were quickly debunked by a milblog campaign (spearheaded by civilian Michelle Malkin), but they characterize the dirty war being fought on the home front.

As Diggs at 4 Mile Creek puts it in a posting that addresses both Hadithah and Macbeth, “I don’t want my wife, or my teenage children, to think that when I’m at war, I lose all touch with morality. I don’t [want] them to wonder if I become the animal that Macbeth so cavalierly imagines he had become. The soldiers injured in war, both physically and mentally, are real enough. We don’t need, or want, or deserve a f—head like Macbeth.”

Although the Macbeth controversy occurred almost entirely out of view of the media, it helped prepare the milblogging community to receive any portrayal of the Hadithah incident with a mix of skepticism and hostility.

A second source of the milbloggers’ critical response to the Hadithah claims is that they share a bipartisan mistrust of the “mainstream media” that characterizes the blogosphere as a whole. Christopher Allbritton, a freelance reporter for Time in Iraq, argues that the fault for this mistrust lies “in the stars of the blogospheres, sites like Daily Kos and Instapundit. Blog culture has created such a distrust of all so-called mainstream media that it’s almost heretical to defend ‘the press’ in a blog these days.”

The frustration for Allbritton is that despite the anti-mainstream media stereotypes of the milbloggers, much reporting from Iraq has been excellent, and has tended to look at topics such as the insurgency and sectarian violence, while U.S. Central Command briefers and the civilian leadership in Washington dismissed those issues as nontopics. He wraps up with a call for “a little support for the press corps” amid the usual “support the troops” rhetoric.

“Brogonzo,” an Army public affairs reporter who maintains the site A Healthy Alternative to Work, backs up Albritton’s point. He blasts right-wing blogs such as the Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler (which sells a T-shirt captioned “Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required.”) for accusing the media of ignoring insurgent atrocities in favor of U.S. scandals. Instead, he points out that the “goals of the public affairs branch and those of the press are inherently different” and that he prefers the press “err on the side of cynicism.”

The most balanced assessment of the press’s relationship comes from Michael Yon, a former Special Forces soldier and one of the most widely read milbloggers (http://michaelyon.blogspot.com). Writing on Hadithah, he noted that “[t]o get the true context of how fairly any newspaper or media outlet is treating the military in general, and this war in particular, news consumers should consider how long it had been since that same source focused the same energy on the war. For some outlets, the last time the war really splashed was with Abu Ghraib.”

Yon is right to note that if the media can report the depredations of such men as Charles Graner at Abu Ghraib, they should also describe the many soldiers who practice fire control because they understand that minimizing civilian casualties is an essential part of the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq. As an example, he brings up the case of Sgt. Ben Morton, who was shot to death when he walked into a room full of insurgents rather than risk killing children by throwing hand grenades first.

But the truth is that if the American public were interested in reporting on how the American military is achieving its mission in Iraq, it would be available. This absence implies a deeper split between the civilian and the soldier than most want to recognize. Not only are most individuals unwilling to serve in the military, but they are uninterested in the military’s mission or the sacrifices it will take to achieve it. The closest that the media provides to a narrative of the war, as a result, is a litany of tragedies and atrocities that undermine support for U.S. war aims.

This brings us back to Grim’s ominous warning that “we will not look kindly on those Americans who feel no such sense of brotherhood with our Marines.” No matter how the war in Iraq ends, it is likely that the gap between the military and civilian components of our society will continue to widen.


How to find the blogs mentioned in this article:

• The Mudville Gazette


• A Soldier’s Perspective


• T.F. Boggs


• The Noisewater Notes


• 4 Mile Creek


• Back to Iraq


• A Healthy Alternative to Work


• Anti-Idiotarian Rottweiler


Christopher Griffin is a researcher in the Asian studies department of the American Enterprise Institute.