The military and the media: A Marine officer’s report from rural Afghanistan
A Marine friend writes: I recall being taught something along the lines of "When it comes to talking to the media, remember: the reporter is going to tell or write a story regardless of what you do or don’t say. It’s on you to ensure that he or she understands the context of what is ...
A Marine friend writes:
A Marine friend writes:
I recall being taught something along the lines of "When it comes to talking to the media, remember: the reporter is going to tell or write a story regardless of what you do or don’t say. It’s on you to ensure that he or she understands the context of what is being observed."
This lesson was also running through my mind at the end of a patrol one day in Garmsir. On this particular day, I went out with a squad from our 3rd Platoon on a security patrol around a place called the Lakari Bazaar. This bazaar, at the beginning of our deployment, was owned by the Taliban and littered with IEDs. At this stage in the deployment, the ANA, the Afghan people, and the Marines that I had the privilege to serve had joined forces to eliminate the Taliban in the area. The Taliban mayor of the bazaar was turned over to us. More than 40 IEDs located in the bazaar were pointed out to us. And, nearly every enemy that attempted to go back active or to infiltrate back into the area chose not to do so because the people, or the children, would almost immediately pass the information to the ANA and/or Marines. Our new patrol base, much like Fort Page in "Bing" West’s The Village, was right next to the main village and bazaar. This made sharing information easy.
As I walked back into friendly lines on this day, I noticed what appeared to be two American women sitting down next to our terrain model. One reminded me of my mother, and the other, to a degree, of my older sister. Curious as to what they were doing in our area, I walked up to them and introduced myself, "Hi, I’m ____, is there anything I can help you with?" As best I recall, the exchange proceeded, "Are you the commander here?" I responded, "I guess you could say that. The Marines and ANA run the show, but ultimately, yes, I’m responsible for everything in the AO." The woman responds, "Are you ____?" I respond, "Yes, Ma’am, I am." She then says, "Oh, good, I’ve been looking for your unit for about a week. I’m Elisabeth Bumiller from the New York Times, and this is Lynsey, she works with me. We’re here to cover the FET. I’ve been told your Company employs FET teams all the time. We’d like to see and write about what the FETs do."
Decision point – hmmmn, what next? I’ve been told nothing about the New York Times coming to our AO (I had been away from our company CP for a few days and we were all very busy). I have no clue who Elisabeth Bumiller is, or Lynsey, the woman with the camera. And of all topics, FET? I’m thinking to myself, "FET, Marines, grunts, Afghanistan, New York Times???" This one’s going to be interesting…!
Sparing too many details, after the patrol de-brief, I sat down with Elisabeth and Lynsey for a little while, did my best to understand their mission, experience in Afghanistan or Iraq, what accommodations they needed, etc. I was surprised to hear Elisabeth say that she had never been to Iraq or Afghanistan, yet she wanted to patrol at least once a day with an infantry unit and FET. Lynsey, on the other hand, was an OEF veteran; she had previously done an embed tour in the Korengal Valley.
After learning of their desires, I thought it best that they spend the next few days with two of our partnered rifle squads. Both squads were led by multi-tour, tough as nails, highly respected, big, and previously wounded Sergeants. One of the squad leaders had lost both of his parents just before the deployment (one in the tsunami that hit American Samoa). He was given the option to go home to help his family (this was his fourth deployment in 5 years); he refused. I spoke with the squad leaders and platoon commanders. As best I recall, the conversation went something like this, "Gentlemen, Elisabeth and Lynsey will be staying here for a few days. They want to see how you guys have incorporated FET into your patrols. They also just want to see what you and your Marines do every day. How you interact with the people. How you partner with the Afghans. It’s on you to determine the patrol routes in your assigned AOs. You know our mission and your tasks. Just be yourselves and take care of them. They’re here to tell America about what you do every day. Any questions?" There were none.
Elisabeth and Lynsey then spent a few days with these squads. Once back from spending time with one of the squad leaders, and at our company headquarters, I asked Elisabeth how she liked her time with the Sergeants. I recall her being amazed. She couldn’t believe how young, yet old, mature, and determined the Marines were. She was particularly impressed with the one squad leader who had decided to deploy again despite all of the losses to his family. Specific to FET, she was also surprised to see how well the female Marines were received in the villages.
Once at our company position, Elisabeth and Lynsey went on patrol with different units and interviewed numerous Marines and Sailors. My rules to the unit were simple: "Be respectful, be honest, and take care of them." All I asked of Elisabeth and Lynsey was that they not photograph, videotape, or write about a few very specific things that I pointed out to them. They understood why for operational security reasons and agreed immediately.
As the days progressed, they patrolled with most of the company’s squads, both of the FET teams, observed a weapons cache discovery (based on a local information tip), and watched a Taliban reconciliation from start-to-finish. As they were about to fly out of Mian Poshteh, Elisabeth still wasn’t 100 percent sure of what her stories were going to be about. She said one would most likely cover FET teams and another possibly about the reconciliation. She asked if it was okay to e-mail if she had any last minute questions and then thanked us for taking care of her and Lynsey. A few weeks later, she e-mailed to double check one detail that she planned on writing about. A few days later, I read her first article about the reconciliatioAlex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Pressn in the NY Times. Shortly thereafter, I read the other. I thought both articles were honest, balanced, and accurate. I also thought they explained to America what we had experienced during our deployment. If we hadn’t embraced Elisabeth and Lynsey’s mission, I have sometimes wondered what the stories would have described…"
More from Foreign Policy
A New Multilateralism
How the United States can rejuvenate the global institutions it created.
America Prepares for a Pacific War With China It Doesn’t Want
Embedded with U.S. forces in the Pacific, I saw the dilemmas of deterrence firsthand.
The Endless Frustration of Chinese Diplomacy
Beijing’s representatives are always scared they could be the next to vanish.
The End of America’s Middle East
The region’s four major countries have all forfeited Washington’s trust.