Truth? Yes, Sir!

Why we need a clearer view of both our wars

General William Tecumseh Sherman, like a number of military leaders through history, despised journalists. Tom Curley, president and CEO of The Associated Press, noted in a recent speech that a reporter once appealed to Sherman in the name of truth, but didn’t get far. “We don’t want the truth told about things here,” Sherman replied. “That’s what we don’t want. Truth? No sir!”

Sorry, General, but yes we do. When a democracy goes to war, its citizens need to know how it is going and what is being done in their name. They have a right to as close an approximation of truth as journalists can deliver, given the limitations. The right to bear witness is part of what you fight for.

We have two wars on now, and not enough truth. The chief impediment is the media’s own situation—the vicious advertising recession and the economic upheaval. Going to war is costly and many newsrooms can’t do it anymore. Time magazine, for example, is the latest to shutter its office in Iraq.

But diminishing resources is not the only problem. The military has changed too. The quality of the military-journalist relationship in Iraq got better around 2006 under the command of General David Petraeus, who wanted officers talking to the press, partly as a way to explain his approach to counterinsurgency. But the window has closed.

July 2007 saw 219 embeds in Iraq; that number dropped to sixty-three in July 2008, and this year to just twelve in the first part of the month (full July 2009 figures were not available at press time). Fewer requests have been made, certainly. But as Jane Arraf reports in this issue, the military seems to actively discourage embedding, defeating willing reporters with red tape and travel hell, all for uncertain access in the end. Meanwhile, the turnaround for basic information in Iraq has gone from less than a day to three or four days, and the general attitude is noncommunicative. Many commanders seem ill at ease trying to explain the role of the 130,000 remaining U.S. troops under Iraqi sovereignty, even as those troops take on more complex tasks associated with a new emphasis on protecting and aiding civilians.

The Pentagon keeps adding ground rules for embedding—“They multiply like hangers in a closet,” says Ron Martz, president of Military Reporters & Editors, an association of military journalists. These are not much discussed with media people before they are issued, and some are problematic. Photographers are required to get signed permissions from wounded troops they may photograph. They are forbidden to photograph the faces of prisoners. Reporters cannot describe “the effectiveness of enemy techniques,” like IEDs. Some commanders enforce such rules; others don’t.

In the rising war, Afghanistan, where more U.S. troops are heading, military sources saw a spike in embedding around the national elections. But given newsroom resources, it’s hard to imagine it will continue. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution kept a rotating team of about seven reporters and photographers embedded with a Georgia-based National Guard Unit in Iraq. That same unit is in Afghanistan today and the AJC has sent no one. Along with diminished resources, some blame a diminished public interest in both of these long, grinding wars. But that’s no excuse. First, if you make coverage compelling many people will read it, and may come to understand its civic necessity as well. Second, the press can help bridge a troubling divide between the civilian world and the military, which is increasingly and unfairly isolated. Finally, thousands of U.S. troops are in Iraq or Afghanistan, or going soon, at personal sacrifice and risk. We owe them their collective story.

Some of them will lose everything. Among the latest from that list: Captain Ronald G. Luce, Jr., killed by an IED in Afghanistan. He was from Fayetteville, North Carolina, and served with the Mississippi Army National Guard. He was twenty-seven.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.