The Media and GI Joe

How the press gets the military wrong -- and why it matters.

Back in October, when U.S. Army Rangers first started to fight on the ground in Afghanistan, Washington Post reporter Greg Schneider drew the job of explaining the role of those elite infantrymen to the paper's readers. Drawing on Army manuals, he set out to explain just what it is that sets Ranger battalions apart from their infantry cousins. "Rangers are more heavily armed than most light infantry units," he wrote on October 20. "Their automatic weapons units carry M240G machine guns that can fire up to 1,000 rounds a minute at a range of 1,000 yards. Some Rangers also carry grenade launchers." Rangers also "train with live fire -- actual bullets -- and under all conditions, including night and bad weather." Finally, the Rangers "travel light, usually in rifle companies of about 200 men each." With this kind of information, it's hard not to be impressed: soldiers who train with actual bullets! And travel light, albeit in groups of 200.

There's a very particular tone-deafness at work here. U.S. infantry units of every type tend to be grouped in rifle companies of 200, for example -- and armed in part with machine guns and grenade launchers, and likely to train at night and in bad weather. Imagine one of the Post's science writers telling you that human beings are unique among animals because they alone have lungs and a spine. The very thing that distinguishes the Rangers, if you're inclined to be picky, is not that they are more heavily armed than other infantrymen, but rather that they are often less heavily armed; they are a raiding force, organized not for firepower but for speed and agility.

Schneider's piece is symptomatic of news media that often don't have the foggiest idea how the military works, and don't really appear to care. Some have argued that this is the result of a general decline in military service: Fewer reporters are exposed to the learning experience of armed forces training, because fewer people in the entire population are exposed to it. And so the whole topic has sunk into the haze of cultural disconnection.

"To many young reporters these days," said longtime journalist James Perry in a 1997 lecture at Washington College, "wars and soldiers and serving your country are vague concepts. I always like to tell the story of a colleague at the Wall Street Journal who asked me one day not long ago if Marines had served in World War II. Indeed they had, I responded, and in the Revolutionary War, too. He went on to cover the Pentagon."

Not all the implications of that disconnect are immediately apparent. The real problem is that there are further disconnects right inside the institutions the news media are struggling to explain. There are, in the U.S. military, discrete cultures -- camps and rifts and doctrinal trails that lead off into different wildernesses altogether. Figuring out what this thing really is, and what it can really do, is a job for a team of spelunkers. It's serious work, but the nation's major newspapers are assigning reporters to the job who are awed that Rangers are organized in rifle companies.

Reporters who cover the military without understanding it don't just muff a few basic facts about what kind of soldier carries what kind of gun, or which service does what. They also fail to apply the right skepticism in the right places, or even the right credulity in the right places, and so end up swinging in a wild arc between breathless adulation and naive condemnation. They surrender many of the necessary tools for questioning the authority of the armed forces, and render nearly useless the check and the balance of the Fourth Estate on a major power of government. They create confidence where there should be wariness, and fear where there should be strength.

They get it wrong, and it counts.

Lt. Col. Mike Meese and Col. Russ Howard both work at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Howard is a special forces officer and the head of the academy's department of social sciences; Meese is his deputy in the department and a field artillery officer. Calling them from my home in Los Angeles, I get a glimpse into an internal conversation that has been underway in the military for the better part of a decade. It's a conversation that you haven't read very much about.

"We've been revising and updating the curriculum throughout the '90s, mostly to deal with the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War," Meese says.

But what they've been talking about, in the absence of a Soviet Union, is a pair of ideas derived from Soviet doctrine.

One is the notion of the "revolution in military affairs," a recurring event in history that changes the face of war and alters the balance of power. Soviet military analysts started using the term in the 1970s, in a slightly different package -- they called it the M.T.R., the "military/technological revolution." When U.S. analysts picked up the term, they added a doctrinal component, and a new military acronym was born: the RMA. Not that the thing itself was new. The introduction of the longbow to the battlefield was a revolution in military affairs; so was the introduction of the machine gun.

We're supposed to be in the middle of a Revolution in Military Affairs today. Military leaders have discussed it so much that they rarely use the full term anymore, and just abbreviate on first reference. Today's RMA is a mostly notional revolution in the use of information and automation on the battlefield -- a use of smart machines that allow networked, integrated forces to become more lethal at the same time they become more agile. We have, to sum it up, an exceptionally long way to go before the current RMA is played out; Meese stresses that the term refers to radical change, but not necessarily to rapid change.

The second, more interesting, idea pulled from the Soviets is that of asymmetric warfare. It's a term that has appeared in the news more often than RMA, but it's not always clear what it means or where it came from. It didn't make its first appearance in U.S. military doctrine until several years after the Soviet Union had vanished. The first use of the term here, in a 1995 report titled Joint Warfare of the Armed Forces of the United States, referred roughly to fighting between forces that were not matched in size and composition; a 1998 report defined it with elegant simplicity as "not fighting fair." Meese defines it in useful terms, calling it a way for a weak enemy to dominate a strong one; once you go down this road, notions of strength and weakness become a little more fluid.

The trend has been for asymmetric warfare to leak off the battlefield. We recently saw one of the historical apogees of asymmetric warfare in New York and Washington. The likelihood of such attacks was often hinted at within military circles over the last few years. In 1999, yet another U.S. report, a Joint Staff strategic review titled Asymmetric Approaches to Warfare -- let the record show that military organizations are exceptionally good at producing a lot of reports -- concluded that asymmetric approaches "are attempts to circumvent or undermine U.S. strengths while exploiting U.S. weaknesses using methods that differ significantly from the United States' expected method of operations." And we certainly have seen something that differed significantly from the methods we expected.

One of the clearest definitions of the potential boundaries of this notion borrowed from the Soviet military comes from -- nice touch -- the Chinese military. In 1999, two senior colonels in the People's Liberation Army wrote a book, Unrestricted Warfare, that examined the military potential of things like hacker attacks on U.S. economic infrastructure. But Cols. Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui were talking about something else, too: "'Unrestricted Warfare' means that any methods can be prepared for use, information is everywhere, the battlefield is everywhere, and that any technology might be combined with any other technology, and that the boundaries between war and non-war and between military and non-military affairs has systematically broken down....This new way of thinking puts weapons into the daily lives of civilians. New concept weapons can make of war something that even military professionals will find hard to imagine. Both soldiers and civilians will be disturbed to see items in their everyday lives become weapons that can attack and kill."

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