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."

Ring any bells? It's important not to make too much of Unrestricted Warfare, a book that mostly centers on technological sabotage. The authors have also explicitly and repeatedly said that they were examining possibilities, not calling for action—and they aren't central figures in the Chinese military.

"It was written by a couple of colonels," Meese says. "I'm a colonel, and no one listens to me."

The point is that the ideas were out there. Stephen Sloan, a professor of political science at the University of Oklahoma, got even closer to the thing with a July 1998 paper written for the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College.

"As a result of the introduction of commercial jet aircraft, we have witnessed the emergence of 'Non-Territorial Terrorism'—a form of terror that is not confined to a clearly delineated geographical area. In a very real sense, terrorists now have the capacity to engage in what could be called low-intensity aerospace warfare. They have at their disposal what are for all practical purposes human intercontinental delivery systems composed of skyjackers, and terrorists who are carrying out operations thousands of miles from their base of operations."

And so it's interesting to note the trend of coverage emphasizing the surprise of the U.S. military at the September 11 attacks. The reality is that, as much as the specifics surprised the military, the general outline of a domestic terror attack designed to produce enormous casualties is not something that came shuttling out of the clear blue sky. In fact, there's a trail through yesterday's news that suggests an effort by those within the national security establishment who saw the threat developing to spread the alarm—and to push the inert body of that same establishment in the direction of meeting it.

Time, for instance, reported this in December 2000: "If you build it, they will come—some other way. And they're probably going to come some other way, anyway. That appears to be the bottom line in U.S. intelligence community thinking on the vexed question of missile defense….And the bad news is that, while America will have no rival on the battlefield, it will be increasingly dogged by unconventional enemies against whom technological superiority isn't the same guarantor of victory." They did, in fact, come some other way, just about nine months later.

The attempts to sound an alarm were more often ignored, though, and then some. In June 2000, a national commission formed by Congress released a major report warning that terror attacks from overseas were increasingly likely. But Bruce Shapiro, a contributing editor at The Nation, was too smart to fall for the idea that terrorists might ever attack the U.S.; he cleverly broke down the truth about the report for readers of the online magazine Salon. The headline read, "The hyping of domestic terrorism: Why a new report on the threat of international terrorist attacks on U.S. soil is a con job."

The news stories you saw in the wake of the attacks alleging that the institutions of U.S. national security entirely failed to foresee their possibility were sometimes written by the same people who wrote the earlier stories describing—in some cases dismissing—the warnings. It's a fair guess that there are some awfully frustrated people in the military and intelligence communities right now.

But a posture of surprise in the face of widely available facts isn't really all that shocking, since it has a very particular utility to both the government and the media. It is, at just this moment, a comfort, and one that can be meshed neatly with the other popular media fictions about U.S. military potency. If they didn't see it coming, then the problem is one of foresight and the faulty prescience of a bunch of desk jockeys, rather than operational power. The eggheads in intelligence dropped the ball, but the warrior types are ready to make up for it.

But what does it mean if we did see it coming, and still couldn't stop it?

"We're in a period in which journalists are playing cheerleader," Herbert Gans tells me, a few days into the bombing campaign against Afghanistan. "It happens in the early stages of every one of these things."

Gans has taught sociology at Columbia University for 30 years; his most significant contribution to the understanding of the values of mainstream journalism took up 13 years of his early career, spanning most of the Vietnam War and beyond. Off and on, from 1965 to 1978, Gans set up camp in the newsrooms at Time, Newsweek, and two television networks, watching as editors and reporters considered which stories to cover. His book on the subject, Deciding What's News (1979), remains a landmark in understanding how information moves through media.

News organizations, Gans wrote, "conceive of the nation in anthropomorphic terms," so that news about crisis becomes primarily a test of "character and moral strength." With that emphasis on the health of the body, then, "American foreign news is ultimately only a variation on domestic themes"—of sickness, diagnosis, and cure.

Gans echoes that idea today. "All wars are always domestic stories," he says. "They're about our boys fighting."

If war news is about our boys, then the media-driven view of what our boys are like—of what they can do, and how—becomes a central question in our understanding of war. If someone attacks us, and we respond with military force, what happens?

October 2000 was a very different time than October 2001. In 2000, the most pressing issue facing the U.S. military—judging by media coverage—was the topic of hats. Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army's chief of staff, had ordered every soldier in his organization to wear a black beret with his or her uniform while in garrison. For the last couple of decades, that piece of headgear had been exclusively associated with the Rangers, the elite force that carries machine guns and organizes in rifle companies of 200. News coverage focused on the insult to elite troops who would be forced to give up their special hats to ordinary enlistees; the Rangers, reporters calmly explained, were something not quite of this earth.

"One of the things you learn quickly in the military is to never, ever rile an Army Ranger, as foes have learned the hard way from Normandy to the Middle East," wrote Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Kilian, with near-audible grunts and chest blows. How tough are the Army's elite infantrymen? So tough, Kilian explained, that Rangers brag about parachuting into Alabama—and walking all the way back to Fort Benning, Georgia.

It's worth pointing out that Fort Benning, Georgia, sits on the Alabama border. In fact, part of Fort Benning sits inside Alabama, including the part with the parachute drop. Parachuting into Alabama and walking back to Fort Benning, Georgia, would require a Ranger to hike up a road a couple miles, and across a small bridge.

What happens, in this kind of reporting, is the awe of intimidation—inexperience deferring to experience. Back up, for a moment, to the Washington Post story about machine-gun-toting Rangers. If you don't know how a normal infantry unit is composed, or even what kind of weapons they ordinarily use, how confident are you going to be in questioning what a military officer tells you about what they've done? (How about the commander of a nuclear submarine, or a bomber wing?)

Kilian's remarkable piece in the Tribune ended with dire warnings that there was no earthly way the rest of the Army will possibly be permitted to switch to the black beret; the Rangers, he reported, are opposed. And that's that. In fact, he warned, there would probably even be violence if Rangers saw ordinary soldiers in their distinctive headgear.

"There are ways to get things done," Kilian quoted a retired Ranger as saying. "If we can't get it done through the front door, a lot of us unconventional warriors are going to get it done the unconventional way."

The rest of the Army converted to the black beret in June, right on schedule. The Rangers quietly switched to tan berets shortly after, and that was that.

There's a theme here that stretches between war and peace: In the case of military elites, things generally turn out to be less remarkable than reporters believe. None of which is to say that elite forces are anything less than exceptionally brave, highly trained, and unusually fit. But they are also something that you don't quite get from the news. They are men, often young men, with the standard-issue human body that still doesn't react well to bullets—or to chaos, confusion, and the horrible noise of battle. It's useful to remember that the first Ranger casualty in Mogadishu was an elite commando who fell off a helicopter.

Paul Fussell has seen all of this before. Having served as a combat infantryman in the war against Hitler's military, he came home to write an extraordinary book, Wartime (1990), about the way that news media communicate information. Fussell wrote about the tendency of reporters and editors to accentuate the positive, speak with one voice, adopt a posture of high-mindedness, and assert, in early stages, that war would be "fast-moving, mechanized, remote-controlled, and perhaps even rather easy." But his most telling chapter carried the heading, "The real war will never get in the books."

"What was it about war that moved the troops to constant verbal subversion and contempt?" Fussell asked. "It was not just the danger and the fear, the boredom and uncertainty and loneliness and deprivation. It was rather the conviction that optimistic publicity and euphemism had rendered their experience so falsely that it would never be readily communicable."

Fussell lives in Pennsylvania, retired from a long career teaching literature. When I finally get him on the phone, he is not especially anxious to talk. But he has, in the first days of the U.S. campaign, been watching and reading the news, and has noticed the usual reporting about precision bombing and the sharply executed actions of elite ground troops.

"Those of us who've been through World War II know how empty that is," he says. "Americans have no idea what war is about. And it turns out to be about mass murder….It gets out of hand very quickly."

But here is one of those instances of falling through the looking glass: What do you say about wars that start out with mass murder, then develop order and boundaries of behavior? Just a few weeks after I spoke with Fussell, the news from Afghanistan began to suggest the possibility that the U.S. war there could genuinely be all of the things that war has always been sold as: fast-moving, mechanized, remote-controlled. And perhaps even rather easy.

It's impossible to say just how much that represents an accurate picture, and it probably will remain impossible for quite a while. It would be good to believe that the real war will get in the books; but even through the inevitable euphemism and optimistic publicity, it seems that something has changed.

Superpowers have fought guerrilla forces before, relied on superior firepower, and lost. Air power proved empty, more than once, and then drove Al Qaeda and the Taliban to a desperate scramble for safety.

And so we're left with the question of what might be different—of how the dimensions of U.S. military power might have changed against the changing dimensions of irregular types of military power. We're left to decide—put it this way—whether the emerging revolution in military affairs might bring stability to a world undermined by the growing threat of asymmetric warfare.

It is, for now, a decision we have to make in the dark.

John Arquilla teaches at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, and is a consultant to the RAND Corporation. I call him at home on a weekday evening, and listen as his children ask for permission to watch Get Smart on cable. Then we get down to the subject at hand. He speaks quietly.

"This is not a surprise to most analysts, that this kind of warfare would emerge," he says. He is emphatic about calling it that: Terrorism, he says, has become a form of warfare. "Something wholly other is striking at us."

That something other has been developing for a long time, and in a number of particular dimensions. The recent trend is an increase in the lethality of small groups. Chechen fighters have demonstrated that against Russian troops, as have Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon.

Beyond a sharp upward spike in the killing power of small groups, Arquilla adds, the ability of terrorists to sustain prolonged campaigns—their strategic ability, along with their tactical reach—has grown with the emergence, globally, of "small, distributed networks." And they want something different from what terrorists have always wanted: They want casualties first, and publicity second. They are driven by the body count. "Many terrorism experts were reluctant to accept that," Arquilla says. "There's this old idea that terrorists want people watching, not people dead." The old idea hasn't caught up to emerging realities, he argues. Arquilla, among others, has been sounding this alarm for years—and sounding it from within the defense establishment, as a teacher of senior officers. But to what effect?

"What I see is a familiar pattern of awareness, but also dismissiveness," he says. "Our greatest enemy is our own habits of mind."

Those habits of mind are the product, in part, of victory. It's not a new story. Germany lost World War I on the weakness of the too-old Schlieffen Plan, and was driven to develop the blitzkrieg; France won, and settled down behind the Maginot Line. U.S. military officers are similarly comfortable with their place in the order of things. They have tended to win, and how can the winner be wrong? How can Desert Storm suggest a desperate need to bolt away in a new direction?

More than that, though, there is a deeply rooted problem of doctrine—one that is driven by culture. U.S. military thinking rests on the idea of the decisive victory won with overwhelming force. The emerging war of "hiders and finders," Arquilla says, is "not as soul-satisfying." And so we remain prepared to defeat the military of a major industrial enemy, in big set-piece battles. That preparedness comes at the expense of being prepared to fight nimbly in a world of small, quick players. The heavily industrialized U.S. military is also driven, in planning and budgeting, by the weight of its hardware. An infantry sergeant once explained this to me: "Our doctrine," he said, "is that we have a lot of stuff."

Arquilla agrees, and keeps hoping for change. "Keeping up our conventional military now is like keeping the landing lights on for Amelia Earhart," he says. He argues, for example, for a shift away from massive aircraft carrier groups to a shifting network of lighter craft—the "small and the many"—that will strike more quickly and require fewer assets in the service of platform defense. Whether or not this is what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was getting at with his vague pre-Sept. 11 talk of military reform remains to be seen.

I mention Unrestricted Warfare, the book by the Chinese colonels, and we get to the heart of another big problem: Despite much reporting to the contrary, the kind of attack we've just seen isn't the exclusive property of a particular enemy. "To try to buttonhole this into the Islamic world is a dangerous illusion," Arquilla says, adding that we have to consider a world in which these kinds of attacks are "common, not rare."

That's a remarkable thought. It implies a national security infrastructure that is stuck in such a deep rut that it knows about the cliff but can't turn the steering wheel to avoid it.

"When I go to the Pentagon, I feel physically the locus of American power in the world," Arquilla says. "And yet every officer I meet there feels powerless to effect change."

Arquilla repeats my most important question back to me before answering. "What can accelerate the process? The experience of defeat."

Mike Meese and Russ Howard detail for me, at length, the steps they've taken at West Point to prepare their cadets for the new challenges they face. We discuss not just broad notions of doctrine and the face of future warfare, but also details regarding the course catalog, graduation requirements, and new approaches to teaching about different cultures and governments. And then I talk to several of their cadets.

I bring a prop to the conversations. A story in the September 15 New York Times advances what seems to me like a very dubious premise, and I read a few sentences over the phone to the first cadet. I'm reading sentences about what these future military officers purportedly expected from the world, pre-September 11, and I'm reading them so the cadets can say out loud how silly this all is. Most cadets here, the story says, were aware only of the likelihood that they were "preparing for careers as peacemakers or peacekeepers." And then "all of that changed on Tuesday morning," with the attacks on New York and Washington. My first question is meant to be a big hanging softball, in the style of reporters who've already decided what the story is: You didn't really believe that there could never be another war in your lifetime, now, did you?

But I never get a chance to ask. As I'm reading these sentences asserting that the Army's next generation of officers were unprepared for war, unprepared for terrorism, and expecting only a gentle world of light-policing duties in the Balkan hill country, the cadet begins to agree. "Yes, sir," he says. "That is my perspective, correct."

But he was aware that war was still possible, he adds, and that he's willing to fight. Next year, when he chooses his branch, he'll be putting in for field artillery. He's a big fan of the Paladin, a heavy self-propelled artillery piece that fairly screams of the need to stop the Soviets in the Fulda Gap.

"Field artillery is the big guns, the king of battle," he says. And that it is. Just don't ask in which century.

Another cadet answers my questions with more questions: What do we do now? Who do you go after? What happens with our Arab allies? A third agrees that domestic terrorism "didn't really seem like a threat."

"I'm not quite sure if we have classes that focus on terrorism," she says. "I'm a history major, so…."

And so there's an extraordinary disconnect, somewhere within the culture of the military, in which the leading-edge ideas contained in all of those reports are getting to the really sharp colonels, the really smart analysts, and no one else. Which is, in its way, not that surprising. Very large organizations frequently have trouble moving ideas through every internal subculture, and the military—especially when it won its last war—has a deep natural conservatism of habit. But there are supposed to be catalysts in society that move recalcitrant organizations forward by exposing information, by pushing reality and forcing hard questions to the front. Absent that kind of informed and aggressive questioning, the whole thing reverts to its natural state. Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force.

I mention to John Arquilla a speech I once heard. The retired Army General Barry McCaffrey—the former drug czar—was speaking. If some really smart person in the Army gets a really great idea, he said, and it makes all the sense in the world—well, then, you'll see it in your battalions in 15 years. Arquilla isn't sure McCaffrey got the number right.

"I'd say 20," he says. "Because change is generational."

As domestic terror attacks threaten to become "common, not rare," and one of the primary institutions charged with defending against those attacks undergoes a glacial revolution in the way it does business, we're stuck wondering how to monitor as well as make demands upon that shifting mechanism of protection. What counts? What do we watch for? The persistent problem carries over from the innocent days before we remembered the urgency of the questions.

Some journalists have bothered to dig deeper, and it's worth noting what the last few years have been like for them. In the July/August 2001 issue of the American Journalism Review, writer Lucinda Fleeson discussed the frustrations of a reporter at the Scripps Howard newspaper chain who covered the U.S. military. Before Sept. 11, reporter Lisa Hoffman was already writing stories about the growing significance of things like "cyberwar" and attacks on non-military infrastructure. In the U.S. campaign against Serbia, she wrote, Pentagon planners looked for ways to disrupt Serb computer and telephone networks. But most Scripps Howard newspapers gave Lisa Hoffman's stories on the new face of war little or no play. Hoffman's boss, Scripps Howard Editor and General Manager Peter Copeland, had an explanation. "It's just that they're not committing news anymore at the Pentagon," he said.

"To create the perfect killing machine," the conservative columnist David Horowitz wrote in June, arguing with remarkable logic against allowing gays to serve, "the military works hard to drain recruits of their individuality and their self-interested desires in order to make them think like cogs in a machine. An essential part of the military mind is that members don't think for themselves but do as they are told."

Is there anyone left who thinks that what we most need are troops who consider it a hallmark of discipline that they "don't think"? For so many of the people who write about the military, wars, soldiers, and serving your country are vague concepts—but that's no reason not to talk about them.