This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. Click here to listen to the author discuss the farce of nation-building in Iraq.
Objective reporting on the SEAL team that killed bin Laden was as easy to find as a Prius at a Michele Bachmann rally. The media simply couldn’t help themselves. They couldn’t stop spooning out man-sized helpings of testosterone—the SEALs’ phallic weapons, their frat-house, haze-worthy training, their romance-novel bravado, their sweaty, heaving chests pressing against tight uniforms, muscles daring to break free…
You get the point. Towel off and read on.
What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the US military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V and Sergeant Rock comics.
I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I’m a diplomat, just back from twelve months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.
In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday-morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.
One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’ at a Southern Baptist AA meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”) and was now back to check on just how well democracy was working out, for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech wielded words like “awesome,” “superb” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary), which he used without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli army, “They give me a hard-on.”
Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media
Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focusing on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.