A McChrystal Chill? Don’t Bet On It

The military needs the press, and smart soldiers (still) understand that

As we walked in to the tactical operations center (TOC) of the small combat outpost in Tarmiyah, Iraq, U.S. Army Captain Christopher Loftis fixed me with a serious look. “This is all off limits,” he said, pointing to the classified Toughbook laptops and radio equipment jammed into the small room. It was January 2008, and I was a newly arrived reporter embedded with Loftis’ Alpha Company from the 1st Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division, covering their operations during the now-famous “Surge.” Loftis made it clear that he didn’t want me spending much time around this gear, and that asking questions of soldiers in the TOC would get me booted from his unit. “I don’t know you from Adam, bub.”

I wasn’t offended. He was right to set clear boundaries. But other than those initial restrictions (which I have heard from every officer whose TOC I have stepped into), I essentially had the run of the dilapidated former youth sports complex that Alpha Company called home. Loftis would also soon prove to be the kind of commander any reporter is lucky to run across: smart, honest, open, and forthright, and as an added bonus, a hell of a good interview. It was up to me how many missions I wanted to tag along on, and he allowed me access to meetings he held with former insurgents who were thinking about joining the fight against al Qaeda—though he did ask that some of what they discussed remain off the record.

The almost inexplicable decision that General Stanley McChrystal and a group of his aides made in speaking so harshly—and on the record—of their civilian bosses and peers with Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings has dragged the complicated relationship between the press and the military kicking and screaming back into the spotlight, and stirred fears of a chill between the two camps.

Frankly, that is unlikely. Although some parties might be loathe to admit it, the military needs the press to put its agenda before the American people just as much as the press needs the military’s cooperation to cover two wars. Yearly defense budgets don’t just drop from the sky. They are the result of a constant push and pull—and serious lobbying—among the military, politicians, and the defense industry. And much of that dance plays out in the media. It’s more or less the same with active operations. Not all commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq, or elsewhere will always welcome reporters with open arms, but their bosses know how important it is that the American people get a glimpse of what soldiers, marines, airmen, and sailors are doing in the country’s name.

But the question remains: How does the Army honestly feel about how this episode will affect its relationship with the press? The top brass—public relations pros like General David Petraeus and Michael Mullen, the commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—have been making all the right noises. Last week, for instance, Mullen said that “we need to tell our story. It needs to be done well. It needs to be told smartly. We need to learn the right lessons, not the wrong ones.” He later told a group of officers and government civilians working in Kabul that their response to the McChrystal episode should be: “Don’t overreact; don’t over-adjust. Don’t shy away from the press.”

Easier said than done. In one of life’s supreme ironies, the July issue of Army magazine features a story called “Why Bother With the Media?,” which comes in response to an Army officer who griped on a listserv for company commanders, “I’m not here to escort news reporters around. They’re nothing but a distraction to me. They’re disruptive to my patrols, and there’s always the risk of being misquoted. And, anyway, has anything really positive ever come out of it? Where is the return on my investment?”

The article features ten responses from current or former Army company commanders on their views of the press. One cavalry officer sums up the attitude of many of his colleagues when he writes:

Here’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way. Do not trust reporters to get the story right. Do not trust them to quote you accurately. Do not trust them by expressing your thoughts ‘off the record.’ I handled the media like I handled any key-leader engagement [KLE] in Iraq. I recorded our conversations and put them on the record. Now, while there are these downsides to talking with the media, you do need to ensure that the story of your Soldiers gets out. I am tired of hearing complaints that the media are not reporting all the good things we do downrange from the same people who refuse to interact with the media. The media are the ones who, warts and all, will showcase your Soldiers’ actions. And those actions, warts and all, need to be reported. In the end, remember that reporters are using you as much as you are using them. Act accordingly and ‘cover your six.’

The sentiment just about nails it, though, as with any other organization, it would be unfair to think that you can sum up the vast range of attitudes and viewpoints among members of the military on this or any other subject with a single quote.

So I asked U.S. Army Colonel Steve Boylan, the senior public affairs observer/trainer for the Army’s Battle Command Training Program at Fort Leavenworth, for his thoughts on the military-press issue. Boylan, it should be noted, has perhaps more high-level public-affairs experience than almost any other active-duty officer, having been the spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq from 2004-2005, followed by a stint as General Petraeus’s public affairs officer in Baghdad from 2007-2008.

Boylan now helps teach career officers, and part of what they learn is how to deal with, and understand, the press. I asked him if he thinks that the episode will cause some officers to refuse to deal with the press. “I think those that understand the information environment, those that are knowledgeable on this and understand it will know that you have to engage the media,” he said.

But he acknowledges that those who “have felt that the press is out to get us” will probably hold the McChrystal story up as an example of why they should ignore reporters, and those who favor more openness will say that the military needs to better understand the media and their expectations to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. “And then there are going to be those that have been on the fence and don’t really have a view one way or the other—they could go either way. And those are the folks that I’m more concerned about than anyone else. I’ve got to help them understand that engaging reporters, engaging the media, is not a want to do, it’s a have to do.”

The relationship between the military and the media will never be a comfortable one, nor should it be. The Rolling Stone piece—which was essentially an opinion piece wrapped up as a devastatingly candid profile—is just the latest illustration of that fact.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.