Winning the information battle

…or, at least, not losing it by default…

Now that I’m working again, the calls on my time have multiplied geometrically and this little corner of cyberspace has been somewhat quieter than during my seven month exile at the Raurimu Centre for Contemporary Studies aka  home. I have a two hour drive to and from base each week and, during those periods on the road, have introspected on the unfortunate sequence of events that led to the demise of GEN Stanley McCrystal and his departure from the COMISAF appointment.

(c) Rolling Stone 2010

My first thought is that Michael Yawn had no more to do with what happened to GEN McCrystal that he did with the removal from ISAF of Canada’s most senior in-theatre officer..whether Michael Yawn had yapped on or not, the fate of both these officers would have been the same i.e. contrary to popular misinformation, Michael Yon did nothing to influence these events, other than perhaps besmirching them in his own personal smear campaign which says more about him that it doers either Daniel Menard or Stanley McCrystal. In 2005, I was fortunate to spend some time with the now Chief of the Canadian Defence Force, General Walter Natynczyk, and nothing about that officer struck me as the sort of guy who would or could casually overlook a negligent discharge by a senior Canadian officer and even less so, when it occurred in his presence.

I feel sad for GEN McCrystal, brought down by an angry Icelandic volcano (which is how they all came to be in a  bus together with an embedded reporter from Rolling Stone) magazine and a fickle and irresponsible reporter who, in my ever so humble opinion, abused the position that he was placed in by Eyjafjallajokull, reporting out of context the frustrations of  staff facing the unenviable task of winning a conflict that is unlikely to be winnable. I agree fully with Mike Innes’ comments @ Current Intelligence

I spent the better part of yesterday trying to wrap my head around Michael Hastings’ profile of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and his team of advisors. My initial thoughts on the subject at CNN hint at but don’t fully get to what I wanted to say on the matter… which places me in good company, since the chatter on this issue has been blazing across the wire/blog/twitter sphere since the piece was “leaked” on Monday.

My main point was about social distance – which is actually an issue that binds together pretty much everyone who reads, researches, writes, or does anything at all in relation to Afghanistan (or anywhere, really). It’s what soldiers have to contend with, sitting behind the fortified walls of armed camps, all the while trying to gain a more intimate understanding of local culture. It’s what people sent to a strange place have to contend with, absent the time and access needed for familiarization, much less to develop any profound “knowledge” of their environment. And it’s what war correspondents and other journalists have to contend with when reporting from zones so catastrophically different from their otherwise peaceful, functioning worlds.

Powers of observation, an eye for detail, and a nimble pen can go a long way toward telling a good, accurate, and full story, and toward overcoming some of that distance (or at least recognizing it for what it is). Sometimes, maybe, the gap is just too profound, too wide and too deep, to accurately convey a larger meaning – not factoids and datapoints, but meaning.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it. I think of all the bits and pieces I read yesterday and this morning – and there was a lot of good analysis out there – is this Danger Room piece and Peter Feaver’s clear and focusedbreakdown at Foreign Policy of Hastings’ story elements.

What’s really disappointing, too, is that Hastings and Rolling Stone might have missed out on a real opportunity to craft some truly fine and literary journalism. In an interview on National Public Radio yesterday, Hastings gave some background that would have added a great deal of context and nuance to the story, had they been included. The Paris interlude, for example – which is really where all the juiciest bits of the story come from – came about because of the Icelandic volcano eruption, which disrupted air travel worldwide, and stranded ISAF’s Command Group, like thousands of other travelers. To my mind, that would have been both a unique element of narrative color and detail, and an obvious and immediate source of frustration for men running a war, but trapped outside of it and unable to return to it.

I hear now that the Pentagon is staking steps to require all interviews with senior commanders to be pre-approved from the five-sided building…is this what we are coming to in our fear of the fourth estate…we can entrust senior staff with the live of the nation’s young men and women, empower them to sortie into harm’s way, place the instruments of global destruction in their hands but won’t trust them to say the right thing to a reporter without a thumbs-up from a carpeted office thousands of miles and possibly eons of reality away…Rolling Stone‘s The Runaway General and Michael Yawn’s lipping off about things he know nothing about e.g. senior command, strategy, responsibility, etc are excellent examples of the damage than can be done by irresponsible reporters and editorial staffs, just like 911, the Bali bombings, Lockerbie etc are similar example of the damage than can be done by terrorist organisations BUT we didn’t run away and hide then…we went out and learned a new way of warfare…and that’s what we need to do now in the information war…

The first battle must be internal to shed our fear of the censure and embarrassment  that may come from perceptions of dirty washing being aired in public…this thinking is tantamount to grandma concealing her bloomers  in a pillow case when she hangs out the washing…surely we’re past this stage and realise that we do more damage to ourselves and our causes by playing a manic game of Whac-A-Mole trying to suppress any and all reports that may not be the purest distillation of happy happy joy joy juice…nowhere have I seen it summed up so well as this commenter on Michael Yon’s Facebook page (of course, I can’t find the exact quote anymore) to the effect that the USMC mindset is that “...if we don’t want it exposed out in the open, then we probably shouldn’t be doing it…” And that attitude is the place we need to strive towards, to stopping fearing the media and hiding from them, of being able to stand up say “…we screwed up…AND…here’s what we’re (really) doing about it...” or, sometimes, simply “…this is a risky business and sometime crap simple happens…

If we can’t get our heads around this now, this key battle we are consistently losing int he minds of our people and those of our adversaries, what are we going to do one day when anyone can publish what they think, their own views, opinions and images…what are we going to do then…? Uh-oh….youtube…facebook, bebo…that intreenet thingamebobby… time to climb into the information fight, people….

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