Best Defense

What a veteran combat commander wants from any reporters covering his unit

Recently, among the several blogs I read, there was a particularly vitriolic repost to a journalist by a veteran. His contention was that since the journalist had never been in the military and never commanded any unit in combat, he was unfit to comment about combat or the management of same. I disagree — strongly.



By Col. Keith Nightingale, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist

Recently, among the several blogs I read, there was a particularly vitriolic repost to a journalist by a veteran. His contention was that since the journalist had never been in the military and never commanded any unit in combat, he was unfit to comment about combat or the management of same. I disagree — strongly.

I was in the Army for 29 years — mostly in the pointy end of the bayonet organizations and saw considerable close, personal combat and its effect. I would not make a particularly good reporter.

I like journalists to see, touch, smell people and organizations in combat and then report about that from a detached viewpoint. It is the only way in which a balanced view as to what soldiers do will ever emerge. The public needs to know how its Uniforms feel, think and fight. Journalists can do this. Soldiers cannot — they are too engaged.

Some of our greatest journalistic descriptors have come from writers that never wore a uniform, never fired a shot in anger and never commanded much but themselves. While some may have been combat voyeurs, the very best had the ability to accurately describe the see, feel and smell of combat without losing intellectual detachment. Their impact was immense in a meaningful and positive way.

Ernie Pyle never shot anyone. But few have been able to describe the mentality and feeling of soldiers better than he. The death of Captain Waskow in Italy and his description of the soldier’s feelings is without peer. He described combat and its effect in a gripping yet widely acceptable manner for those with relatives deeply immersed. His walk along Omaha Beach describing the ebb and flow of combat detritus from bodies to guitars to apples and cigarette packs has greater emotional impact as to the meaning of war than any other medium could convey. He understood the indescribable.

Edward R. Murrow was a chain smoking Scotch drinking relatively unknown journalist working for CBS in an England now at war. One night, on an impulse, he went to the roof of his hotel and described the Blitz with real sound effects and detached but meaningful dialogue. He arguably did more to gain US support for Britain than FDR’s Fireside chats. He became England at War for us.

In Korea and later Vietnam, David Douglas Duncan’s black and white photos of Marines at the leading edge of life told truths and realities that few could match. His efforts made a huge difference in people’s understandings of how it really was-a reality that no combat veteran would willingly report.

T.R. Fehrenbach, a part-time Texas journalist with too many infirmities to join any Service, wrote a book, This Kind of War. It expertly encapsulated the equation between mud, blood, Infantry and intent. It more accurately than any General’s Congressional testimony, told the military what it had to do if it wanted to get better. The soldiers and Marines who labored across that frozen peninsula had him as the best point man they could find.

Walter Cronkite, a veteran reporter from World War II and Korea, made repeated trips to Vietnam. His sympathy was always with the people that did the fighting but he always maintained a journalistic detachment as he addressed the Why of our presence. Finally, despite all the contrary engagement of a President and his General and Admirals, he saw what the soldiers saw and reported same. A man who never led a squad made an evening editorial and led the Nation.

Field reporters are the infantry of their organizations and report as best they can. Distortion and philosophical prejudices usually emanate from their chain of command rather than from themselves. In 1967, my unit, a Vietnamese Ranger Battalion, was engaged in a huge 24 hour firefight deep in War Zone D. At the end, we went from 450 soldiers to 32 remaining within the perimeter. Elements of the 11th Cavalry and everything that could fly and drop a bomb in the Corps area helped to bail us out. In the succeeding morning, several waves of helicopters brought in media to cover us. Most of them departed after an hour or so on the ground. One team stayed, Harry Reasoner and his Vietnamese sound guy. They spent the entire day walking around, talking to everyone and getting an in-depth description of what had occurred. Toward the end of the day, Mr. Reasoner came up to me and said; “This is a really good story and we have some great film. But I have to tell you I am afraid it will never see the light of day because it’s a Vietnamese unit, not American. It will die in New York.” He was right but it wasn’t his fault-he took the hill as he saw it. Others gave it up.

On a personal level, in Grenada, my unit had a national television reporting team imbedded from the day the media were authorized in country. They slept, ate and walked with the troops. They daily reported what they saw and what we were doing. The senior chain of command was upset as a matter of Institutional principle with their and others presence. But, we were shortly besieged with letters from schools and citizens thanking our guys for what they were doing. A short video of a squad on the evening news clearing a town, capturing some bad guys and then sharing food with the kids and an obviously grateful community showed the Nation what soldiers do and what they were all about. That three minute video was of far greater value to the fabric of the Nation and the pride of our soldiers than any bland press briefing at the Pentagon.

What we and they also learned, was that we are very much alike. A couple of nights together, a shared fire fight, lack of “civilized” living conditions and military field chow cemented respect for each other. Soldiers learned that these folks had the same sardonic sense of humor, suspicion of higher authority and just simple humanness. Living together while maintaining professional detachment serves both elements well.

The imbed program in the Sandboxes, when really utilized by the media was immensely helpful in describing the war from the grunt’s viewpoint. Riding along with the leadership or walking with a platoon through Fallujah provided extraordinary clarity for the folks at home. Mutual respect was an earned award for both.

The wide and varied nature of both Iraq and Afghanistan allowed journalists to see and smell things that otherwise would not be observed. A passage point in the Khyber or a portside processing in Basra provide context and breadth to the greater picture. None of this requires combat experience to be presented in a meaningful way. Without widespread engagement, any description of the overall effort is subject to significant omissions and incorrect analysis.

Observing but not partaking in a combat unit’s day fixes certain senses and sensibilities. The detachment of the job combined with the proximity of the players lends elemental truths to the greater picture. They do not have to wield a weapon to carry one. Their greatest value is in their brain and their ability to communicate what they saw, sensed and felt. What they do has potentially far greater impact on the ultimate outcomes and directions than any maneuver unit and rightfully so.

I do not want reporters to be combat veterans other than by exception. Combat provides deep personal experiences and emotions but does little for the intellect or powers of reason. I want reporters to be very observant, understanding of the issues and prejudices of all the players and with a great degree of communicative skills. Seeing the truth and accurately reporting it is far more valuable than a chest of service ribbons or a full but hidden file in the darker recesses of the mind.

I want an Ernie Pyle to walk with my soldiers, not an Audie Murphy. Audie is up front on the point, Ernie is watching from the rear end of the column. And taking notes.

Colonel Nightingale served 29 years in a variety of Ranger, Airborne, Infantry and SOF elements,  He had 2 tours in Vietnam and participated in the Iran Rescue, creation of JSOC, Grenada, Panama and several classified operations.  

U.S. Army Center of Military History/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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