Friday, December 24, 2004

The Reporters You Have

A few weeks ago, we heard about the Dec 8th town-meeting style Q&A in Kuwait where Spc. Thomas Wilson asked Sec Def Donald Rumsfeld, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?” Rumsfeld’s response, “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have,” has earned him no end of recriminations. It’s a great story: evil corporate-CEO-type taken down by the lowly noble grunt, reminiscent of David and Goliath. The problem with this simple tale is that it is not true. Sure it happened, but there’s so much more to the story.

Many of you may already know that Wilson’s question was a put-up-job. He and another soldier were planted in the audience by a reporter, Edward Lee Pitts. Pitts knew that the Q&A was for soldiers and, while reporters were welcome to attend, the press would not be allowed questions. Pitts sought out willing accomplices, rehearsed the question, then (in his own words) “went and found the Sgt. in charge of the microphone for the question and answer session and made sure he knew to get my guys out of the crowd.” The nobility of Mr. Pitts pales a bit when it becomes clear that he has “been trying to get this story out for weeks - as soon as I found out I would be on an unarmored truck.”

Of course, the violation of journalistic ethics - creating a story, instead of reporting - is less important than the fact that our soldiers are unarmored. Or would be if that were true. Senator Dan Burton reported that of 19,000 Humvees in Iraq, only 4,000 were unarmored. The Army’s combat systems development and acquisition team reports that of the 830 vehicles in the 278th Regimental Combat Team (that would be Wilson’s unit), all but 20 had been armored before the Dec 8th Q&A. In a Pentagon briefing that has gone almost unreported, Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Speakes further explained that the orders for the armoring of those last 20 vehicles had already been given and the armorers “completed those 20 vehicles in the next day.” In other words, 97% of the vehicles had been armored and the rest were scheduled before Wilson asked his question and done the day after.

The reporting of this event makes Rumsfeld appear cavalier about the plight of our soldiers, which appearance the press is all to happy to fabricate and present, but is also not true. The Sec Def spoke both before and after his ‘sound byte’ about the problems surrounding the issue. Part of what he said was that it is “not a lack of desire or money but a logistics... physics problem.” Reporters aren’t interested in the finer details, usually because those details would support Rumsfeld and Bush. Ballistic glass is one of the ‘logistic/physiscs’ problems: four sheets of glass glued together, very thick and heavy but still as clear as normal windshield glass, it holds up against bullets and the shrapnel thrown up by roadside bombs. According to Rep. Duncan Hunter of the House Armed Services Committee, ballistic glass is just too heavy for the window frames of the military vehicles to support.

The press is also loathe to report on the Supplemental Funding Bill. You remember that one, the one that was ‘voted for, but then voted against’. That bill included the funding for the up-armoring costs. So when people tell you they did not support the bill, but still support the troops, don’t you believe it. The media also has notoriously short memory. It is almost as if reporters suffered from Alzheimers. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) remembers and reminds us, “eight years of Bill Clinton decimated the military to almost half of what it was in 1990.” Under Clinton, military “modernization stopped,” funding was cut back, and personnel diminished. Over the eight Clinton years the Army lost 4 active and 2 reserve divisions, the Air Force personnel dropped by 30%, the Navy went from 393 ships to 316, and the Marines lost 22,000 troops. Vice President Al Gore described his military as the “strongest in the world” despite the fact that the Pentagon gave 60% of the training schools and 20% of active divisions their lowest ratings for readiness.

Serving with Spc. Thomas Wilson in the 278th Regimental Combat Team is medical platoon leader Second Lt. Lance Frizzell. Frizzell tells a different story than Wilson. Frizzell posts a blog to the internet (http://iraq.billhobbs.com/) and had this to say about the armor issue: “One point overlooked by the (main stream media) in the furor created over ‘hillbilly armor’ is what would happen if the 278th hung out in Kuwait for an extended period of time waiting for official up-armor kits. Here’s the answer: The units we are scheduled to replace would be stuck in Iraq waiting to be relieved.” Frizzell goes on to point out “it’s time for these guys to go home. It’s time for us to take their place. Period.” As a soldier and medic in the field, Frizzell has a better frame of reference than even embedded reporters and has said, “Most soldiers I talk to say the worst thing about being deployed is nothing you personally experience over here, it’s the worry your family goes through.”

Reporters are perfectly within their rights to pose tough questions to people like the Secretary of Defense. But asking a hard question is quite a bit different than engineering a news event. Worse still is when the information reported to the readers at home is purposefully inaccurate and slanted to serve political goals. Many of the reporters who hog-piled onto this story have behaved shamefully, but because there are few who hold them up to the light, they get away with it. Our soldiers deserve the best in both equipment and support; it is reprehensible that they get used as fodder for the political machine.

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