Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Consider the Source

This one is part debunking and part war story so I’ll just throw it out there for you to enjoy whichever way you like it.

On one occasion in Afghanistan, my team had the pleasure of providing host to the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and I’ve got the coin to prove it. Our location was rather remote. We had a Special Forces team, a Civil Affairs team, and a Psychological Operations team literally two hours from anywhere; by plane that is, it was more like two days by road. And here we were, less than two dozen U.S. soldiers, preparing security for the SecDef.

Due to time constraints, the meeting was to take place at the local airport, more like an airfield. I cannot get into too many details but let me just say that we utilized our local Afghan defense force and had that airport secured better than Osama’s 72 virgins.

The SecDef touring through a combat zone is big news, so he had several reporters tagging along. Since the reporters were not allowed in the meeting, they wandered around the greeting area and mingled a little with the greeting party.

A short time later, somebody found one of their reports and sent it back to us. It told how the Afghan men were so unaccustomed to seeing unveiled women that one Afghan soldier asked to have his picture taken with a couple of the female reporters. He then went on to describe how we moved around the aircraft they came in on like a giant chess piece to avoid drawing mortar fire. We all had a pretty hearty laugh when we read that. Here’s what really happened.

First, the Afghan soldier was closely related through blood and/or partnership with the local governor/warlord and was pretty privileged; he just loved getting his picture taken and would pose for a camera any chance he could find. He was determined that any reporter with a camera was going to take his picture whether female or not.

Then the aircraft was another story. For convenience, the plane initially stayed close to the greeting area but C-130’s are notoriously noisy and Rummy complained that he could not hear. So, we radioed the pilot and they turned the plane in a direction that would direct the most noise away from the meeting room. This was not enough so we asked the pilot to again move the plane further away and he taxied out to the runway. Something must have kicked in and the pilot decided that the middle of the runway was not a good place to park so he moved again to the end of the runway. So, no chess moves and nobody could get close enough to reach us with mortars.

The whole reason for telling the story is to illustrate how far outside the loop the average reporter is. They observe events from the sidelines and make guesses at what is happening and then add their biases. On the other side, the one seldom reported, the military Public Affairs posts reports by the men and women who are doing the work. Are they going to put a positive spin on them? You bet they will, but whose reports are more accurate and whose reports would you rather read? Keep in mind that second hand testimony is inadmissible in court.

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