Given the furor that has been kicked up around the reporting of Michael Yon, I went, as I had said I would, and read some of Mr. Yon's site. I can see why he is so popular, his writing is like an action adventure novel. He tells gripping stories of the soldiers and the units he embeds with. To his credit, he has the courage to go and report from a place that is alive with danger and violence. Among the accolades I have seen repeatedly used to describe his work are unvarnished and unbiased. That would be where I would disagree. In fact, I doubt that it would be possible to maintain one's sanity in such an environment without a healthy dose of varnish and bias.
In all of the dispatches I read last night and today, it was perfectly clear that Michael Yon has deep admiration and respect for the soldiers with whom he travels, whose stories he reports. For what it is worth, I have every faith that the vast majority of forces serving in Iraq warrant that respect and admiration. These are men and women who have left their homes, families, safety and security behind to carry out their duty. It is not the job of the troops on the ground to determine their mission, they follow orders, no matter how wrong or poorly thought out those orders may be. Among the chorus of Yon's supporters, one of the most common arguments I've seen is that he has criticized the mission where it went wrong. Perhaps that's the case, I didn't see much of that in what I read.
What I did see was that throughout the dispatches I went through, American guns were pointed in anger at two groups of people, terrorists and al Qaeda. There was no indication of any other set of combatants and those designations were inter-changeable. Yon made no attempt to discern beyond those roles and to a degree, I can't fault him for that. He is under the protection of American and coalition forces, he is telling their stories. But his depiction of the 'enemy' is one dimensional at best. The trouble in Iraq is the very complexity of the opposition, there are tribal, ethnic, sectarian, regional and political divisions. There are disputes that date back into history that are being fought out within the culture and the coalition is neither trained nor equipped to resolve those many complexities. Yon seems to make no attempt to grasp or define the issues on the other side of the mission. Those would be the issues of the Iraqis, the people who are supposed to be being liberated. He is telling tales of heroes but to claim that his work is unbiased is just not true.
In his dispatch, Gates of Fire he tells a harrowing story of courage and leadership under fire. It is a hell of read, there's no question that Yon can write. When it comes to questions of personal slant or agenda, the best I can do is to contrast two small quotes. First from Mr. Yon,
"The Iraqis who seethe over the shooting of Kurilla know that the cunning fury of Jihadists is congenite. Three months of air-conditioned reflection will not transform terrorists into citizens.
Over lunch with Chaplain Wilson and our two battalion surgeons, Major Brown and Captain Warr, there was much discussion about the “ethics” of war, and contention about why we afford top-notch medical treatment to terrorists. The treatment terrorists get here is better and more expensive than what many Americans or Europeans can get.
“That’s the difference between the terrorists and us,” Chaplain Wilson kept saying. “Don’t you understand? That’s the difference.”
And a noble difference that would be. In a story that relates the courage of a beloved and respected warrior who is wounded, there is not a question of the wisdom of the mission. Yon never seems to wonder just what the hell these men and women are risking their lives for. And to be honest, I applaud the effort made to share the stories of the individuals on the ground, varnish and all. The truth is neither all good nor all bad and I am certainly not without my own bias.
But contrast Yon's quote with the following, from a study conducted by The Nation, in the words of American troops:
"I had the night shift one night at the aid station," said Specialist Resta, recounting one such incident. "We were told from the first second that we arrived there, and this was in writing on the wall in our aid station, that we were not to treat Iraqi civilians unless they were about to die.... So these guys in the guard tower radio in, and they say they've got an Iraqi out there that's asking for a doctor.
"So it's really late at night, and I walk out there to the gate and I don't even see the guy at first, and they point out to him and he's standing there. Well, I mean he's sitting, leaned up against this concrete barrier--like the median of the highway--we had as you approached the gate. And he's sitting there leaned up against it and, uh, he's out there, if you want to go and check on him, he's out there. So I'm sitting there waiting for an interpreter, and the interpreter comes and I just walk out there in the open. And this guy, he has the shit kicked out of him. He was missing two teeth. He has a huge laceration on his head, he looked like he had broken his eye orbit and had some kind of injury to his knee."
The Iraqi, Specialist Resta said, pleaded with him in broken English for help. He told Specialist Resta that there were men near the base who were waiting to kill him.
"I open a bag and I'm trying to get bandages out and the guys in the guard tower are yelling at me, 'Get that fucking haji out of here,'" Specialist Resta said. "And I just look back at them and ignored them, and then they were saying, you know, 'He doesn't look like he's about to die to me,' 'Tell him to go cry back to the fuckin' IP [Iraqi police],' and, you know, a whole bunch of stuff like that. So, you know, I'm kind of ignoring them and trying to get the story from this guy, and our doctor rolls up in an ambulance and from thirty to forty meters away looks out and says, shakes his head and says, 'You know, he looks fine, he's gonna be all right,' and walks back to the passenger side of the ambulance, you know, kind of like, Get your ass over here and drive me back up to the clinic. So I'm standing there, and the whole time both this doctor and the guards are yelling at me, you know, to get rid of this guy, and at one point they're yelling at me, when I'm saying, 'No, let's at least keep this guy here overnight, until it's light out,' because they wanted me to send him back out into the city, where he told me that people were waiting for him to kill him.
"When I asked if he'd be allowed to stay there, at least until it was light out, the response was, 'Are you hearing this shit? I think Doc is part fucking haji,'" Specialist Resta said.
Specialist Resta gave in to the pressure and denied the man aid. The interpreter, he recalled, was furious, telling him that he had effectively condemned the man to death."
For all of the tales of heroism and honour that Yon tells, there is another side. My guess is that the truth lies somewhere between. It is important that both the good and the bad are heard. But when Yon dismisses criticism of the uncorroborated tale of horror he told, regarding baked children and forced familial cannibalism, by deeming it "precious", he crosses a line. He is at that point no longer just reporting, he is no longer just a cheerleader, he becomes a propagandist. That is the objection and I think it is valid.