By early 2004, though, the administration’s—and by extension the military’s—honeymoon with the press was ending. Soon after completing my first tour in Iraq, headlines were dominated by detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib, the bloody urban combat in Fallujah, and deadly IEDs. Weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found. The increasingly negative press coverage fomented resentment in the ranks. Soldiers were urged to avoid reporters. Journalists griped about access.
I was torn. I was proud of what my soldiers and I had accomplished in Iraq. I had witnessed the exuberant hopefulness among Iraqis who thanked us and saw a bright future ahead. But as the violence metastasized, the e-mails I received about yet another West Point classmate killed or blinded or paralyzed became more frequent. As the government seemed increasingly unable to halt the deteriorating situation and my faith in our cause eroded, I became sympathetic to the media’s effort to hold someone accountable.
By 2006, I was serving my second tour of duty, this time in Ramadi, the most violent city in Iraq at one of the darkest periods of the war. Throughout 2005, as my awareness of journalism’s role as a watchdog was maturing, the rising danger and security costs for journalists in Iraq forced more and more news outlets to shutter their bureaus. Reporting grew perilously thin. Worse, the American public had lost its appetite for the bad news out of Iraq.
Journalists were a rare sight in Ramadi in those days. We assumed they were holed up in hotels in the Green Zone. Serving as my battalion’s adjutant that summer, I handled the final affairs of our soldiers who were killed or wounded by the boiling insurgency. Every day I reduced broken bodies and shattered dreams to lines on spreadsheets and taped-up boxes awaiting shipment to next of kin. I was indignant and angry. I felt we’d been abandoned by America.
Still, I admired the few reporters who took extraordinary risks to venture out our way. I made an effort to meet them—I wanted to know what drove these men and women. They inspired me. I decided that the next time I came to Iraq, it would be as a reporter. Less than a year later, I was in New York.
Columbia was a fresh start. no uniforms, no one to salute. At first, I relished being among students from different walks of life: lawyers and businesspeople, teachers and activists, creative people with strong convictions and a range of views on every issue. Few of them, however, had any experience with the military. Most, it seemed, had never met a veteran.
Some of their notions about military culture and the conduct of the war typified the simplistic views prevalent in the mainstream media. For example, there was a perception that military service was merely a last resort for poor kids or immigrants; all veterans, some people assumed, suffered some degree of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It signaled to me that the cultural rift between the institution I had left and the one I was joining was more hardwired than I had realized, and I increasingly found myself defending the military against stereotypes.
As the semester progressed, I felt a creeping sense of isolation. I had my own criticisms about the failed strategy that plunged Iraq into chaos, but I was resentful of the hostility from prominent panelists and lecturers at the school that year. One evening, an award-winning photographer presented work he’d done in Iraq to my war correspondence class. During his talk, he ridiculed the hapless officers and scheming NCOs he’d dealt with on his various embeds, caricaturing them with tired labels and silly voices. He even delivered a mocking impersonation of one dim-witted private assigned to protect him.
These were extreme views, yet as some of my classmates laughed that evening, images of the soldiers my unit had lost swirled in my head. Brave men who had died serving a cause they believed in didn’t deserve such desecration, I thought. I sought advice from a professor about how to manage the raw emotions these interactions provoked. Her response, as she later wrote in my performance evaluation, was hardly encouraging: “I would advise that Matt refrain from working in Iraq until he feels comfortable maintaining an emotional distance from his old life, so as not to impair his journalistic judgment.”
Had I made a big mistake? Could anyone ever trust me to be completely neutral where the military was concerned? Could I trust myself?