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?”