May 26, 2009

War Journalism vs Reporting on the Military, Part 2

Posted in Business & technology, Military matters tagged , , , , at 1:09 pm by Maggie Clark

When I wrote last Friday that all investigative reporting carries with it a measure of risk, but no kind more so than war journalism, I hope I stressed enough that the ability of most all other subjects to destroy reputations, companies, job prospects, jobs themselves, property values, and even whole livelihoods is still quite considerable. Even in these realms, lives too are sometimes lost.

Thus it was with little surprise, but great sadness, that I read this past weekend of South Korea’s president Roh Moo-Hyun, who threw himself off a mountain after enduring what has been typified as “relentless” pursuit by the media following allegations of bribery in the past year.

Sadness, because I do generally believe in the redeemable life, and for someone so sensitive as to realize and react to the weight of his indiscretions must especially be seen as having had in him the capacity, also, to apply awareness of the past to more positive future actions. More disconcerting by far, for me, are those will not even make allowances for the possibility of error, and so forward the argument that, as George Santayan once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Yes, this matter of reflection brings me right back to my original thesis, on the need to treat war journalism and reporting on the military as distinct tasks, and in this way overcome the limitations on truth-telling during a time of armed conflict.

But so too does a quotation from the aforementioned article on Moo-Hyun:

NYT — “It has become a bad political habit for presidents in South Korea to try to gain support by punishing the former president,” said Kang Won-taek, a politics professor at Seoul’s Soongsil University. “What happened to Roh Moo-hyun shows that it is time to break this habit.”

The tendency to define a presidency by the failings of the one that came before took root as the country struggled to redefine itself in the early 1990s as a young democracy after years of dictatorships. Many Koreans were exhilarated as the first democratically elected governments punished the men who had resisted democracy for so long.

No good, in other words, comes either from denial of the past or the outright demonization of all that came before: The former leaves us no room to learn from our actions; the latter, no room to accept that the same seeds of indiscretion and abuse lie in us just as much as they did in those who came before.

What remains, then, is the need for nuance; and any journalist will tell you nuance only emerges when there is consistency and longevity to the issue being addressed. Here, then, lies the primary distinction between war journalism and reporting on the military: war journalism exists so long as the conflict does, while reporting on the military would extend across conflicts, and through the long stretches of peace besides.

An analogy might lie in the chronicling of small mining towns: During production booms there would be plenty to report upon, in terms of speculation, quality, corporate practices and corruption, union issues, housing markets, immigration, and emergent family issues pertaining to social services, community development, opportunity costs, and secondary job fields. But at times of little to moderate production output and community growth there would seem to be fewer dramatic matters to comment upon. And yet there are still issues — there are always issues: from the impact of employment and poverty levels on drug and domestic abuse rates, to the disintegration of a social net, to the rise of hunting to offset low wages, to reduced educational opportunities, health matters, religious communities, and impossibly high relocation costs.

So it also is with the military, and I would even go so far as to say that what’s omitted from our reports on the military during peace time, or what systemic comparisons we neglect to construct between different armed conflicts, considerably weakens our overall understanding of the role and culture of defense in contemporary society.

Take, for example, our treatment of military rape — a topic much on my mind since the New York Times‘s Bob Herbert wrote an opinion piece entitled “The Great Shame” back in March. Herbert notes a lot of the most difficult aspects about military rape that go under the radar in current reporting on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — specifically, that the soldiers rape both citizens and their own. Last year alone, according to Herbert, saw a 25 percent increase in reported rapes of female soldiers. Considering that rape is one of the most under-reported crimes in our society, it chills me to the bone to wonder how much deeper these offenses go.

The column furthermore put me in mind of a piece I read in 2007, on Salon.com, entitled “The private war of women soldiers.” Though a strong, culture-building piece, its position in an online, sociology-leaning magazine sadly made sense at the time: I had difficulty imagining the same emblazoned as a features news story on the cover of most mainstream print newspapers — even though, were we to treat rape with the same severity as business coverage, it would be.

Which is why Herbert’s piece was so striking. How was Herbert able to tackle an issue this demoralizing and potentially demonizing to troops presently stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, when so many suicides, friendly fire incidents, and criminal behaviour in the same context and region were barely addressed outside of hard news reports?

The answer, I’m convinced, lies in his approach: Herbert started with an incident with no clear date stamp, and few to no concrete details. He wrote broadly, wedging a couple pertinent facts about current rises in rape statistics amid a vaguer, more expansive discourse about how rape in the military manifests, why, and what can be done about it. By couching the subject in so many generalizations, he was therefore able to draw this stinging conclusion:

NYT — The military is one of the most highly controlled environments imaginable. When there are rules that the Pentagon absolutely wants followed, they are rigidly enforced by the chain of command. Violations are not tolerated. The military could bring about a radical reduction in the number of rapes and other forms of sexual assault if it wanted to, and it could radically improve the overall treatment of women in the armed forces.

There is no real desire in the military to modify this aspect of its culture. It is an ultra-macho environment in which the overwhelming tendency has been to see all women — civilian and military, young and old, American and foreign — solely as sexual objects.

Real change, drastic change, will have to be imposed from outside the military. It will not come from within.

And you know what? I’m okay with this approach, so long as it produces serious discussion and follow-up. After all, do we really need to drag every rape victim in the military out into the open in order to bare the truth of its existence? I should think not — especially as that in and of itself can impose undue added harm on the victims. Similarly, do we need to parade every suicide case in order to prove it happens? Must every soldier who accidentally shot one of his own in a high-stress combat position be splayed across the papers of the nation?

No. The rules of war journalism are understandable: In reporting on any immediate conflict, writers and photographers need to minimize their negative impact on the sources at hand — the soldiers, primarily, but also any alternative sources they might seek out from the region, civilian or otherwise — while simultaneously conveying the essential facts of any one news story.

But we journalists still have meta-data, spanning this conflict and many others besides, at our disposal. And to report once a month on suicide rates, reported rapes, friendly fire incidents, mental health walk-in clinic figures, tour extension numbers, and other such statistics — both at home and abroad, and kept in close relation to a study of historical statistics as well — would in and of itself go a long way to entrenching a dialogue on military culture that no one can perceive as a direct threat to our soldiers overseas. No extensive parade of bodies and names needed!

Because, really, all this reporting on the military isn’t meant to be a threat: rather, it’s meant to help eliminate those threats most often propagated by ignorance; and ultimately, to help the rest of us truly understand. Not, perhaps, so that one day the entire sub-culture will no longer be needed — that’s far too much a pipe dream for even a young’un like me to humour. But at least so that, one day, we can apply this distinct sub-culture to the relief of inevitable global conflicts with the full knowledge of just what it is we’re giving up in the pursuit — we hope — of a greater common good.

Post Script:

*Apologies for the lateness of this entry: In all honesty, my cat deleted the original yesterday — ironically leaving in its place only the letters “un.” She evidently doesn’t quite agree with my position on this issue, a disagreement I hope she understands I can end swiftly by denying her supper. … Then again, who knows what she’d delete in retaliation. Best not to chance it!

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