As the ‘forever war’ drags on, veterans bring battlefield knowledge to the newsroom

March 21, 2018
A US soldier looks out at the Afghan landscape. Photo: US Army/flickr.

America’s wars in the Middle East, Thomas Brennan likes to joke, are now officially old enough to drive. Afghanistan, the eldest child in a family of wars that has grown to encompass fighting in almost a dozen countries, will turn 17 this year, and Iraq recently turned 15.

“We’ve never had a war that’s gone on this long,” says Brennan, who joined the Marines in 2003 and saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. “We’re soon going to have kids that weren’t even born when 9/11 happened that’ll be going off to fight a war that came as a result. We’re in uncharted territory right now.”

After more than a decade of constant war, the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs have ballooned into two of the largest departments in the US government, commanding over 60 percent of Congress’s discretionary spending in the 2018 budget. Newspaper budgets, unfortunately, didn’t balloon with them, and right now, political drama is far more likely to make the front page than anything to do with the military. “Obsessed with the seemingly daily updates in the Stormy Daniels story or the impeachment potential of the Russia investigation, the American media is paying even less attention now to a topic it never focused on with much zeal,” Margaret Sullivan wrote in The Washington Post this weekend, referring to a lack of coverage of civilian deaths in the Middle East.

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But as traditional media have scaled back coverage of the country’s conflicts abroad, a new crop of online publications gives voice to veterans and military journalists, covering America’s wars and the people who fight them with an unvarnished blend of personal experience and investigative reporting. And while subject matter may overlap, the writers I spoke to say coverage of the military isn’t as competitive as other beats, partly because there’s plenty of material to go around. America’s wars in the Middle East have gone on for 17 years, and there’s still no end in sight.

Brennan, who was my roommate at Columbia Journalism School in 2015, now runs The War Horse, a nonprofit newsroom focused on covering the military and veterans affairs. The War Horse is one of several publications that have sprung up to cover and cater to the 2.7 million Americans who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan since 2001.

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Brennan says he sees The War Horse as a military life version of The Marshall Project, a non-profit newsroom solely focused on the US criminal justice system. The War Horse’s first huge scoop was the Marines United scandal, in which Brennan discovered a massive network of current and former Marines sharing revenge porn and nude photos of female service members in a private Marine Corps Facebook group. Brennan was already a member of the group, a private forum for male marines, navy corpsmen, and British Royal Marines, and he immediately began documenting the illegal and amoral behavior. Brennan published his investigation with Reveal, the site published by the Center for Investigative Reporting, and then doggedly followed up with Marine Corps leadership until it mounted an investigation.

Task and Purpose, according to managing editor Sam Fellman, is a more traditional digital media company. Fellman tells CJR he wants to run a “site that hosts news for a military audience in an unfiltered an authentic way”—which, in practice, means a blend of breaking news on military-related stories, op-eds, and video series. That gives the outlet a lot of flexibility to let individual voices shine, and let writers take sharp angles on military news that wouldn’t find a home in the guarded column inches of major newspapers. (For example, take this sardonic headline: “Afghanistan’s Ambassador Says We’re Not in a Forever War. That’s True, Because We’re All Going to Die When the Sun Explodes”).

“You cannot bullshit these guys,” Fellman says of his writers. “We have voices that are unparalleled at cutting through the noise.”

One of T&P’s newer voices is Paul Szoldra, another marine infantry vet who came over from Business Insider earlier this year. Szoldra’s new column, Code Red News, is an antagonistic take on the Pentagon, and Szoldra says he doesn’t worry about losing access the same way reporters at traditional media outlets might (he doesn’t have a Pentagon press badge to lose, for one).

“The Pentagon does press briefings just like the White House, but in the Pentagon I think there’s a little more deference to what they’re doing,” Szoldra says. “I don’t know why we accept the Pentagon’s view of things as the word of God. They lie to us all the time, they’ve lied to us in the past. It kinda blows my mind that we don’t call them out on it more.”

Take Defense Secretary James Mattis, a renowned former Marine general and beloved figure among the corps who Szoldra says often gets the benefit of the doubt for being a relatively clear-headed figure in the tumultuous Trump administration. Until 2016, Mattis also sat on the board of Theranos, the Silicon Valley startup which recently crumbled under a massive fraud investigation. Szoldra pointed out that Mattis never fully answered a number of hard questions about his relationship with Theranos, and aside from a Washington Post piece during his confirmation hearing, the story seemed to have been ignored by other reporters. Szoldra put those questions to Mattis in a direct email. The general did not respond, and a Pentagon spokesperson gave a statement on the issue to one of Szoldra’s colleagues that offered no concrete answers, but Szoldra published his questions at T&P and encouraged Mattis to answer them, “in the interest of transparency and ethics.”

Szoldra, Brennan, and other veteran writers feel they’re able to speak this way because of their service and personal expertise. When Brennan declares war on the misogynistic culture of sexual violence in the Marine Corps, he’s addressing something he was surrounded by firsthand for a decade. He’s not an outsider lecturing grunts on being more politically correct; he’s an insider telling his peers that they need to shape up.

Brennan is not an outsider lecturing grunts on being more politically correct; he’s an insider telling his peers that they need to shape up.

“I feel veterans’ voices can be brought to bear in just about every issue the media covers these days,” says Adam Weinstein, a senior editor at Task and Purpose. “Whether it’s firearms policy and gun violence, or corruption in government, or jobs and welfare for all Americans, whatever side they take on these issues, veterans’ opinions are deeply informed by their experience and it’s an experience that a vast majority of Americans don’t fully get. So we’re in a position to improve the discourse.”

Weinstein, a navy veteran, has written extensively on gun culture and firearms regulation in America, and clashed directly with Dana Loesch about the NRA’s weaponization of obscure firearms knowledge. After the Parkland shootings, which claimed the lives of 17 people (including Weinstein’s former high school wrestling coach), he attended the funeral of Peter Wang, a Junior ROTC cadet who died holding a door open for his classmates to escape. Weinstein is outspoken about his political views, which he says have veered further left since the Iraq War, something that doesn’t usually fit the standard stereotype of a veteran.

“My ethos is to complicate the simple narratives,” Weinstein says. “Veterans immediately know that the way they’re spoken about in culture is simplistic and doesn’t jive with their experience.”

Since 2009, The New York Times has had a home for those stories as well. At War ran as an online-only blog on the Times website, covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through personal essays from deployed soldiers and dispatches from reporters on the front lines.

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“[At War] operated like a garage band, where people who cared about what was being said and wanted to participate just showed up and jammed, away from the military’s public relations messaging,” CJ Chivers, the Times’s long-standing foreign correspondent, tells CJR. Chivers, who served as a marine infantryman during the first Gulf War, says the original blog’s “quirky coverage” informed the paper’s traditional war reporting, and served as a sort of talent network for developing writers. Brennan got his first published byline in At War, describing his perspective of a violent ambush documented by Reuters photojournalist Finbarr O’Reilly in 2010.

In 2016, the Times stopped publishing on most of its standalone blogs, and At War was effectively shut down for a year, during which Chivers lobbied heavily for its return. The paper announced it would revive the vertical under the umbrella of the Times Magazine in December 2017, and in February of this year hired Lauren Katzenberg to edit At War full-time. Katzenberg co-founded Task and Purpose in 2014 and served as that site’s managing editor until her move to the Times.

The new section launched on Tuesday with an essay by a tank commander reflecting on his role in starting the Iraq war. Katzenberg tells me that the new At War is a deliberate attempt to expand the American public’s concept of armed conflict: who it affects, what it’s like, and why that matters. That means incorporating new voices across the world with an insight into conflict —think refugees, aid workers, and other civilians, not just combatants—as well as using the team’s deep background in military life and conflict to publish detailed contextual reporting around confusing topics.

Katzenberg mentioned a recent Times story, published shortly after the Parkland shooting, which broke down the function and capabilities of an AR-15-style rifle, compared to the military’s standard-issue M4 and M16 variants—a battle of semantics that had been raging in the media for days. Katzenberg, Chivers, and At War’s two new full-time reporters, former Navy explosives ordnance disposal officer John Ismay and former infantry Marine T.M. Gibbons-Neff, contributed to the report. Second Amendment advocates often make a big deal of how the AR-15, a civilian weapon, lacks the fully-automatic function of a military M4 rifle, but Ismay and Gibbons-Neff know that every infantry soldier is trained to fire the weapon on semi-automatic, making it identical in function to the civilian model. When the At War team describes an AR-15 as a weapon of war, their analysis isn’t a political statement.

“War is horrible no matter what your politics are,” Katzenberg tells CJR. “There needs to be a discussion somewhere in the middle and I think that veterans can start that conversation. I think there’s a place there to have that dialogue that’s rooted in facts and experience.”

The more veterans that become a part of that conversation, the better. The War Horse hosts a series of writing workshops aimed at current or former military members, putting them in touch with professional mentors and other journalists. Task and Purpose, Weinstein and Fellman say, is always taking new contributors. “I want to try and help a lot more of those transitioning veterans find their own voice, whether I agree with them or not,” Weinstein says. At War has an open call to join its community, and Chivers says fostering a new generation of military writers was part of his pitch to bring back the section.

“While many have non-traditional resumes for journalism careers (at least for the last few decades) they are equipped with specialized knowledge and fueled by skepticism and moral energy that has been forged in experience,” Chivers tells CJR, in a direct message. “Let’s face it, serving in combat gives many veterans a highly attuned nose for bullshit. We [journalists] should welcome people like this to our ranks, and coach them and channel them and be excited about the service they can provide readers.”

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Jack Crosbie is a freelance journalist based in New York, who has reported on conflict, technology, food, and sports from several countries. Follow him on Twitter @jscros.