In January 2007, growing doubts I had about our ability to stave off an eventual genocide in Iraq were intensified by our failure to competently manage the media battlespace. Within the military I sensed a growing censorship and was myself denied access to the battlefields in 2006. After months of fighting with Army Public Affairs for access, they relented, but only due to public pressure following the publication of an article in the Weekly Standard. An expanded version of the article “On Censorship” was published as the dispatch “Al Sahab—the Cloud” on my website. The article was blunt; by then I’d been fighting for about six months to re-embed with troops.
In a counterinsurgency, the media battlespace is critical. When it comes to mustering public opinion, rallying support, and forcing opponents to shift tactics and timetables to better suit the home team, our terrorist enemies are destroying us. Al Qaeda’s media arm is called al Sahab: the cloud. It feels more like a hurricane. While our enemies have “journalists” crawling all over battlefields to chronicle their successes and our failures, we have an “embed” media system that is so ineptly managed that earlier this fall there were only 9 reporters embedded with 150,000 American troops in Iraq. There were about 770 during the initial invasion.
Many blame the media for the estrangement, but part of the blame rests squarely on the chip-laden shoulders of key military officers and on the often clueless Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad, which doesn’t manage the media so much as manhandle them. Most military public affairs officers are professionals dedicated to their jobs, but it takes only a few well-placed incompetents to cripple our ability to match and trump al Sahab. By enabling incompetence, the Pentagon has allowed the problem to fester to the point of censorship.
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