But in a good way.
Like 14,691 others, I have been following Michael Yon’s Facebook page as he reports from Afghanistan and had intended to promote him again yesterday as a great example of the Information Militia in operation – Tom Ricks beat me to it with Learn how to be a war correspondent. His website is Michael Yon Online. I’ve commented on him a couple of times before in Doing the Business, following an item on Neptunus Lex on pararescue teams operating in Afghanistan; and slightly later when I thought he was a well-intentioned meddler pressuring US DOD to release a Haitian-born Army officer from service in Afghanistan to deploy to assist in Haiti.
So who is this guy, Michael Yon?
Michael Yon was born in Florida in 1964 (a good year for writers) and joined the US Army when he was 19. He remains one of the youngest soldiers to pass the Special Forces selection process. He left the Army in 1987, after only four years. This is not that unusual and is somewhat typical of what many young men were doing at the time in joining the Army and leaving once they had gotten it out of their system, and/or to take advantage of other opportunities, many of which may have resulted from that military service. I saw many good soldiers in the same period who joined up, completed basis recruit and infantry corps training, spent 6-12 months in 2/1 RNZIR before deploying to 1 RNZIR in Singapore for two years. Many of them left the service at the conclusion of that posting, older, more mature and with much broader horizons.
He drifted through various activities until he began writing in the mid-90s. However it was not until the War in Iraq began that his name came to the fore as a correspondent in December 2004. from that point he has gone from strength to strength as an embedded reporter although his relationship with the military has not always been that smooth. He “…supports embedded journalism over traditional reporting, believing that the closer writers are to events the less likely they are to repeat military public relations spin…” and this one of two common themes in his writing today. The other is an extremely strong compassion for soldiers and this comes through very strongly and effectively in his reports.
“Happy news for the Left was that U.S. soldiers were demoralized and the war was being lost… Happy news for the Right was that there was no insurgency, then no civil war; we always had enough troops, and we were winning hands-down, except for the left-wing lunatics who were trying to unravel it all. They say heroin addicts are happy, too, when they are out of touch with reality.” Moment of Truth in Iraq, Michael Yon, 2008.
The War in Afghanistan has truly begun. This will be a long, difficult fight that is set to eclipse anything we’ve seen in Iraq. As 2010 unfolds, my 6th year of war coverage will unfold with it. There is relatively little interest in Afghanistan by comparison to previous interest in Iraq, and so reader interest is low. Afghanistan is serious, very deadly business. Like Iraq, however, it gets pushed around as a political brawling pit while the people fighting the war are mostly forgotten. The arguments at home seem more likely to revolve around a few words from the President than the ground realities of combat here. ~ Michael Yon Online
His 2006 article in The Weekly Standard, Censoring Iraq summarises his views well although it led to a major falling out with the US military. He has been criticised often for an apparent naivety in some of his releases, which I think could be attributed to his short period of personal military service, his habit of launching into text-based upon misleading or incorrect information (hence my comments re Haiti), and releasing the names of casualties before next of kin have been properly notified. This last point is interesting as Michael Yon has been accused of doing this during the current operations in Afghanistan however has come back strongly, supported by others, stating that the in-theatre information has been that notifications had been completed.
There is some confusion within the military regarding timing of releasability of names of the fallen. This confusion stems from apparently contradictory sentences within the embed guidelines. The guidelines are being clarified to avert misunderstandings with media, and within the military…Yes. This stems from the Garcia episode. The PAOs, through no fault of their own (other than Garcia blowing a gasket and talking publicly), have some confusion about the embed papers. CPT Adam Weece showed me the sentences and I agreed that the sentences are confusing and seem contradictory. Insofar as my release, I was completely cleared and broke no rules. Was well within the guidelines and what’s right, but the episode revealed some rough spots that need to be ironed out. And so the military is on it and will get it fixed. Should be good soon. ~ Michael Yon Facebook, Feb 10.
This latter point is interesting as it may have uncovered a lag between what happens in the theatre and the actual notifications in the US. While casualty notification is not an easy nor a pleasant task, it has to be sharp – quite simply there can be no fumbles or ball drops – and possibly this is an area that could be put under the Lessons Learned spotlight to make sure we have got it right. One would like to think that the process has come a long way from the Western Union telegrams in We Were Soldiers….Like so many things in the military, this is a function that must be regularly wargamed to ensure that we have it right – and it IS one of those areas where metrics CAN be set to define the standard e.g. family notification in XX hours by XX means by XX individual(s), media release(s) in XX time (relative to family notification) by XX individuals, etc etc.
In Running the War in Iraq, MAJGEN Jim Molan discusses how he and his staff had to meet very tight times lines to be ‘first with the truth’ or, if not, counter dis- and mis-information from any source. I think that the same onus rests with the public affairs staffs everywhere. Embedded media like Michael Yon offer great potential to conduct our own information operations – a function we have historically be very weak in – but they come with risk. Michael Yon’s great attraction is that he comes across as ‘the truth’ and not as PA-spin – if you try to take away the ‘on the edge’ ‘right here, right now’ pulse of his work, you defeat the whole purpose of having an embed. Yeah, sure, there’s this OPSEC thing but I’m not sure how far you can go down that path when the official mouthpieces are telegraphing pinches a week ahead of time. One of the strongest criticisms of the current wars is that ‘truth has become the first casualty’ again – pragmatic shepherding of embeds like Michael Yon can go a long way to mitigating this perception…