When Reporters Fire Weapons

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One of the classic ethics questions that critics of the media try to expose American reporters' insufficient patriotism with is some variant of, When push comes to shove in a war zone involving U.S. troops, would you pick up that gun?

Well, push came to shove the other day in Iraq, so freelance reporter Michael Yon picked up an M4, and

just about got everyone killed when he hit a propane tank.

A discussion on the propriety of Yon's actions, from a military and not journalistic-ethics perspective, over at Intel Dump.

UPDATE: Yon's account is definitely worth a look-see.

NEXT: The Meth Death Cover-Up

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  1. It shouldn’t be funny. But, I can’t help it. It just makes me laugh for some reason. I’m going to hell.

  2. I think this is a nice reminder that not everything is a matter of high principle. Say what you will about the role and duties of a journalist, but blowing up a propane tank is not on the list.

    Nothing like a perfectly good principled argument being ruined by some practical details!

  3. I remember reading in Michael Herr’s book Dispatches
    (one of the very best books to come out of Vietnam) how one night, during a firefight at an isolated firebase, he “got on the wrong side of the story.” It
    was that or die is the impression I got.

  4. he acted trying to help americans. what’s wrong with that?

  5. It was for the greater good after all.

  6. Yon was previously a special forces guy, so his situation is a bit untypical. Most reporters don’t know which end of a gun the bullets come out of, and certainly don’t have combat training or experience, let alone special forces training.

  7. Why do propane tanks hate America?

  8. Yes indeed! Without that special forces training, he WOULD have hit the propane tank. phew. those special forces superpowers make batman seem, well, um. anyways…

    It is all a plot against Hank Hill.

  9. Most reporters don’t know which end of a gun the bullets come out of, and certainly don’t have combat training or experience, let alone special forces training.

    Which explains why most reporting on things military blows.

  10. Did someone mention propane?

  11. I wonder what the true facts are here. I am highly skeptical of reports that come out of US warzones because these zones tend to spawn a lot of lies and secrets.

  12. Yeah, all the other warzones are so much more open and forthcoming, y’know?

  13. He’s attached to my old unit. Thank God I’m not in the army any more!

  14. “He’s attached to my old unit. Thank God I’m not in the army any more!”

    wouldn’t that be in the navy then?

    ha ha.
    ahem.

  15. A good example of an armed reporter in a war zone is the battle of Ia Drang in Vietnam (“We were soldiers . . .”). There are other ‘nam examples, but I think this one is the best known.

    In Korea, there were a pair of brothers who were reporters. They had been Marines in WW2, and I believe they packed Garands and used them as required.

  16. If you follow the links to Yon’s blog there are some pretty pictures to look at. They show a fairly desperate situation where it looks like two guys have gone down. From his own account, Yon seems to have fired blindly into the building where he thought the enemy was. In doing so he accidentally hit a propane tank. The tank actually shot through the doorway and started spinning and hissing around on the street. Luckly, it didn’t ignite. I don’t know much about police/military tactics, but this seems like a mistake one of the soldiers could have made, as well.

    They sure messed up the guy they took in. He was finally subdued with concrete.

  17. Considering that the one reporting the shooting of the propane tank was Yon himself, I don’t really see what the big deal is here. He went in only after the other soldiers at the scene (a couple of newbies) were “frozen” and wouldn’t help a wounded soldier.

    Yon was also reprimanded (really just scolded) by an officer for his actions.

    Peter Arnett, of all people, was stuck in a foxhole and given an M-16 (which he fired) when he visited a forward base in Vietnam and it came under attack by NVA. The commander of that base, one Lt. Norman Schwarzkopf, was impressed.

    Reporter Joe Galloway talks of manning a .30 cal during a particalarly nasty engagement here: http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0204/galloway2.htm

    BTW: he also carried one of these around with him when he went “in country”.

    http://world.guns.ru/smg/smg32-e.htm

  18. One would think that reporters going to far away dangerous places would, y’know, take a self-defense class or something.

  19. As long as the reporter discloses that he took up arms to protect himself, I don’t see how this is even an issue. Neutral journalism is important, but it’s not a religion — there’s no sense dying to protect it.

  20. As long as the reporter discloses that he took up arms to protect himself

    Yup, that is one of the issues. If an armed response was not justified here, you can see why Yon might lie about that. It is not like the alleged insurgent is going to have any meaningful chance to contradict him. Maybe the “frozen” soldiers will come forward and tell us what really went down. Or maybe the “frozen” soldiers will say nothing. Or maybe the frozen soldiers will come out and say what their commanders tell them to say.

    Bottom line: if you take this story at face value, then, as Art Paul Schlosser said, “You might be gullible.”

  21. That is funnier than heck. LOL

    Arnett actually shot at a commie?

    Wonders never cease.

  22. Ethics, especially journalistic ones, can change in emergencies. As a (sort of) reporter, fomer Marine, and current reservist I can say I would have done exactly the same thing. Being objective does not mean you need to stand by and watch people die.

  23. Where’s the outrage? What’s the big deal? I guess maybe I’ve been reading too much Ernie Pyle, but it seems like you should be an American first and a reporter second. Which would mean that, when push comes to shove, you should do the right thing by the grunts you’re following around with a camera. (Duh…)

  24. “We now go live to Christiane Amanpour in Iraq”
    “Thanks, Wolf. I’m currently killing a man just to watch him die.”

  25. I just want to make clear — I’ve got no dog in that ethical hunt, either. My personal ethics, as pertains to this particular situation, are:

    1) I’m too chickenshit to go to war zones in the first place.

    2) Even if I did, I’d probably be too chickenshit to pick up an M4, as I’m unfamiliar with that weapon; and

    3) Who the hell knows how I’d act? I mean, besides badly.

    I tend to think “ethics” are usually a way to complicate common sense, and/or to impose order on chaotic individual moments. I think the reporter definitely showed balls, and I’ll leave judging the wisdom of his actions to those who actually know what they’re talking about.

  26. Matt,

    An M-4 is just a short M-16. The controls are the same. The civi AR-15 has similar controls, the difference is the safety can be rotated farther to a full auto position on the M-16 and M-4.

  27. “Maybe the “frozen” soldiers will come forward and tell us what really went down.”

    If you read the account and check out the photos, it’s pretty clear what really went down. While the Lt. is falling and fighting, the other two soldiers don’t move.

    Or do you think maybe Yon placed some clever cardboard cutouts there to satisfy the story?

  28. As long as the reporter discloses that he took up arms to protect himself, I don’t see how this is even an issue. Neutral journalism is important, but it’s not a religion — there’s no sense dying to protect it.

    How about taking up arms to protect fellow Americans?

    Bottom line: if you take this story at face value, then, as Art Paul Schlosser said, “You might be gullible.”

    Should I take stories from reporters who wouldn’t take up arms to defend a fellow American at face value?

  29. Bah.

    Hunter S. Thompson used to shoot propane tanks on his compound all the time.

    Yon’s just following in his footsteps.

  30. Don — Well I ain’t never touched an M-16, either! My gunplay has been more or less limited to the 22s of my youth, and whatever nice weaponry Eugene Volokh let me shoot. (I’m especially fond of the Glocks; don’t like the big rifles too much.)

  31. Don,

    All he’s saying is that relying on a participant in a fire fight for an objective account (and trusting the US Government to tell the truth) is unwise.

  32. Maybe in picking up the rifle, Yon was just trying to get the insurgents to give him an interview in which they spill their guts.

  33. Nobody knows how they would react (look at the 2 soldiers who froze), but I would like to think that whether I was a reporter or not, I would pick up the fucking gun and try to blast some motherfuckers that were trying to kill people that I know. And yes, I do know enough about an M4 to at least be able to load and fire it.

    Prolly woulda hit the propane tank, too, and prolly wouldn’t have been able to duck outta the way for all I know… 🙂

  34. LT Flynn was first out of the Stryker, and both he and the airguard CPT Westphal, saw the pistol at the same time and also shot the man. The other suspects started running. But all Kurilla saw was LT Flynn stepping off the ramp, and then there was a lot of shooting. Kurilla yelled F L Y NNNNNNNNNNN!!!! and was nearly diving to stop Flynn from shooting, thinking the new lieutenant had lost his mind and was shooting a man just for running from Coalition forces. Soldiers can’t just shoot anyone who runs.

    Chris Espindola also shot the man. Amazingly, despite being hit by four M4’s from multiple directions, the man still lived a few minutes. Soldiers out ran and tackled his two associates when they made a run.

    During their interrogation on base, both admitted to being Jihadists. One was training to be a sniper, while the other was training for different combat missions. They also admitted that the terrorist who was shot down was their cell leader, who had been training them for three months. They were on a recon of American forces when Kurilla sensed their intent.

    The cell leader had a blood stained ?death note? in his pocket stating he was a true Mujahadeen and wanted to die fighting the Americans. He got his wish; and now, Chris Espindola, Kurilla’s radio man, was down in Baghdad testifying against the two surviving co-conspirators. Despite their sworn confessions, Kurilla was left with a young radio operator with little trigger-time.

    Gee, maybe the sworn confessions should have been deemed sufficient. You wouldn’t want a soldier with little trigger time riding around in a big armored vehicle shooting unarmed, errr, I mean people with pistols. How handy that the dead man left a note. Gosh, if he had lived, the note might have caused trouble for him. I wonder if he thought of that before he picked up a pistol and decided to wander around on a recon mission where the US soldiers with the M4s hung out.

  35. The quote italics should run thru “trigger time” (first instance).

  36. While I think it’s a bit silly to claim that picking up a weapon to defend yourself is some violation of ethics (if the guy in the shop had won the fight, I really doubt he’d stop to inquire if any of the other Americans were reporters before shooting them), it’s pretty clear from the reporter’s weblog that he’s not objective. He keeps referring to people as “terrorists” (including the Iraqi in this case) when (according to his own weblog) there’s no evidence that they’ve committed any acts of terrorism.

  37. Didn’t HST clear up long ago that not all jounalists need be objective? And this guy has never claimed he is. As Ken said above, read his weblog. I think his perspective is fairly obvious. And I find his veiwpoint more valuable knowing that. Furthermore, he is not reporting for any agency claiming to be objective (AP,CNN,whatever). I see no problem with this.


  38. Amazingly, despite being hit by four M4’s from multiple directions, the man still lived a few minutes.

    The M16 is a toy. The M4 is a less accurate, less powerful toy. .308 forever, baby!

  39. Intellectually drafted article. seems to grab attention at once.The writer has a good knowledge of the subject and makes reading interesting.

  40. The M16 is a toy. The M4 is a less accurate, less powerful toy. .308 forever, baby!

    Using the right 5.56 ammo, the bullets will fragment and cause significant tissue damage. For example, M193 5.56 mm causes greater wounds than M80 7.62 mm ball (.308). However, if hunting ammo or certain brands of 7.62 mm NATO ball (German and IIRC, Swedish) are used, 7.62 is the winner.

    The shorter M-4 barrel (14.5″ vs 20″) reduces muzzle velocity, which is critical to 5.56 mm fragmentation. However, and M-4 is only less accurate than an M-16A2 if iron sights are used; with a scope on each, the shorter stiffer barrel gives the M-4 a minor accuracy advantage, all else being equal.

  41. Don – I was mostly being flippant, but there is a serious concern about the lower muzzle velocity of the M4; the 5.56 round is already considered marginal at longer-range engagement (which keep happening, despite the insistence of tacticians) and the 5.56 from the M4 is moving slower yet and dropping more at longer ranges.

    I was also thinking yesterday about the funny evolution of the battle rifle – first we ditch heavy rifles because it’s hard on the soldier to carry a heavy rifle and much ammunition when he’s on foot…and then we have to cut down the light rifle because it’s inconvenient in vehicles! IMO, we should just go over to something like a 6.5mm bullpup, but I cheerfully admit this is all armchair general-ing on my part.

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