Society November 2004

The Media and the Military

American reporters would shudder to think that they harbor class prejudice—but they do

Ever since the American-led invasion of Iraq last year, when hundreds of journalists were embedded with military units, people in media circles have been debating whether journalists lose their professional detachment under such circumstances and begin to identify too closely with the troops they are covering. A journalist I met recently in Iraq told me that whenever he returns from a stint with the military, he gets a string of queries from journalism professors, wanting to know if embedded journalists have become, in effect, "whores" of the armed forces.

Having spent much of the past two years embedded with U.S. military units around the world, I find such fears to be a case of class prejudice. As with many forms of prejudice, the perpetrators are only vaguely aware of it, if at all.

Even with the embed phenomenon the media still manifest a far more intimate—one might say incestuous—relationship with politicians, international diplomats, businesspeople, academics, and humanitarian-relief workers than with the U.S. military. Given that all these groups push various political agendas, it is fair to ask why embedding has struck a raw nerve.

The common denominator among the non-military groups is that they derive from the same elevated social and economic strata of their societies. Even relief workers are often young people from well-off families, motivated by idealism and a desire for adventure. An American journalist would most likely find it easier to strike up a conversation with a relief worker from another Western country than with a U.S. Marine or soldier, especially ifthat Marine or soldier were a noncommissioned officer. This is not necessarily because the journalist and the relief worker share a liberal outlook; a neoconservative pundit would fare no better with the NCO, for example. The NCO is part of another America—an America that the media elite is blind to and alienated from.

I am not talking about the poor. The media establishment has always been solicitous of the poor, and through much fine reporting over the years has become intimately familiar with them. I am talking about the working class and slightly above: that vast, forgotten multitude of Americans, especially between the two cosmopolitan coasts, with whom journalists in major media markets now have fewer and fewer opportunities to engage in a sustained, meaningful way except by embedding with the military.

The U.S. military—particularly at the level of NCOs, who are the guardians of its culture and traditions—is a world of beer, cigarettes, instant coffee, and chewing tobacco. It is composed of people who hunt, drive pickups, use profanity as an element of ordinary speech and yet have a simple, sure, demonstrative belief in the Almighty. Though this is by and large a politically conservative world, neoconservatives might not feel particularly comfortable in it. Some neocons, who have taken democracy and turned it into an ideological ism, wouldn't sit well with Army and Marine civil-affairs and psy-ops officers who pay lip service to new democratic governing councils in Iraq and then go behind their backs to work with traditional sheikhs. The meat-and-potatoes military is about practicalities: it does whatever is necessary to, say, restore stability in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, Army Special Forces work regularly with undemocratic warlords and tribal militias, and see no contradiction with their own larger belief in democracy. Arguing over abstractions and refining differences between realism and idealism is the luxury of a well-to-do theory class.

The military is an unpretentious environment in which, for instance, the word "folks" is commonly used for people both good and bad. When, after 9/11, President George W. Bush drew snickers from some writers for his reference to al-Qaeda terrorists as "those folks," it was an indication not of Bush's poor speech habits but of the regional and class prejudices afflicting the media establishment.

The starkly differing attitudes toward Bush that one encounters within the media and the military go to the heart of this class divide. You may not get much of a sense of it at the Pentagon, or at military academies such as West Point and Annapolis. The Pentagon is about as indicative of the rest of the military as Washington is of the rest of America; West Point and Annapolis are about as indicative of U.S. military schools as Harvard and Yale are of colleges and universities across the heartland. To know what soldiers, Marines, and other uniformed Americans think, visit the housing for young NCOs at a base such as Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Camp Pendleton, California; or Fort Hood, Texas. Visit the Army Sergeants-Major Academy in El Paso, Texas, or the Army and Marine infantry schools at Fort Benning, Georgia, and Twentynine Palms, California. Visit U.S. barracks and military chow halls around the world.

NCOs in these places appreciate President Bush, whatever his manifold weaknesses, for subjective cultural reasons. His voice is a clear, simple one that speaks of a clash between good and evil, between good guys and bad guys. Bush talks like a believer; he is unabashedly Christian. He says openly that it is all right to kill the enemy, which goes a long way with military fighting units. One Air Force master sergeant told me, "I reject the notion that Bush is inarticulate. He is more articulate than Clinton. When Bush says something, he's clear enough that you argue about whether you agree with him or not. When Clinton talks, you argue over what he really meant."

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic, is the author of Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2001). He is writing a series of articles about American troops in far-flung parts of the world.

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