I’ve been traveling around Iraq for more than a week, spending time with U.S. forces. One constant is complaints about the news media. “Why doesn’t the press show the good we’re doing?,” soldiers ask. They wonder why the coverage seems so slanted.
Part of the answer is that the soldiers’ tactical successes may not be adding up to strategic success. Another part of the answer is undoubtedly the bias of the press—not only against the war but also in favor of negative news. But another important factor is the ham-handed reticence with which the military makes its own case.
The conventional military mindset sees the media as a potential enemy to be shunned at all costs. Officers who get quoted too much are derided behind their backs as “glory-seekers” or “self-promoters.” The focus is always supposed to be on the team, not the individual, and there is a general assumption that good deeds will speak for themselves. General George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq (now about to become Army chief of staff), exemplified this point of view. He seldom spoke to the media and tightly limited who could speak on behalf of his command.
The result of such caution is to cede the “information battlespace” to critics of the war and even to outright enemies such as Osama bin Laden and Moqtada al Sadr, who have shrewdly manipulated press coverage. General David Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, wants to engage more actively in what are known as “information operations,” and he’s off to a good start. He is, for instance, taking reporters with him on tours of the battlefield. On Saturday he had a correspondent from the San Antonio newspaper along when he traveled to Baqubah. (I also accompanied him, as did Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute.) But to be successful, Petraeus will have to get more officers to follow his example.
Some officers I met with earlier this week at Task Force Justice in the Khadimiya neighborhood of northwest Baghdad offered useful suggestions for what should be done: (1) require all battalions to set up a secure, comfortable room where reporters can stay and file stories; (2) contact media organizations to invite them to send embeds; (3) distribute lists of media contacts down to battalion and even company level and encourage officers to contact the press directly, bypassing the ponderous public-affairs bureaucracy; (4) grade battalion, brigade, and division commanders on how well they engage the press.
To this I would add one other idea: troops on the ground who see inaccurate reports about their operations should contact the media outlets in question and demand corrections—or take other steps to publicize the facts as they know them. In short: stop griping about the press in private and start doing something about it in public. That’s just what some military bloggers are already doing, but their activities are often frowned upon.
What the armed forces have to realize is that in today’s world engaging in information ops can no longer be a peripheral part of a military campaign. In a sense, the kinetic operations have come to be peripheral to the core struggle for hearts and minds in Iraq—and back home. If the armed forces don’t do a better job of waging this part of the struggle, they can lose the war, no matter what happens on the battlefield.