Sunday, June 06, 2004

As Weak As Water

This week's cover story at the Memphis Flyer, titled "An American Boy," is one of the weakest things I've seen them publish. It's a good example of a writer starting out with a point, failing to find the supporting statements, and then massaging what he has into a false semblance of what he started out trying to write. Let us begin.

Writer Chris Davis gives the appearance of having discovered a young man who is troubled, then laying out his troubles and why. I think he started out wanting to write a story that showed how the Iraqi War is wrong, in reason, purpose and execution, but couldn't find someone who could do that.

The sidebar to the story reads:
Everyone in town has a friend or family member in the military, or so it seems. That said, it's not easy for a reporter looking to collect stories from Iraq.

I contacted the Public Affairs Office at Fort Campbell and told them what I was looking for. They didn't offer to arrange interviews. Or anything else. They did tell me that there are always soldiers at Bo's Barber Shop and at the Chevron station across from Gate 4.

"Hello, I'm somebody you don't know from a publication you've never heard of. How's your war going?" That's what my introduction must have sounded like to the soldiers I met. Most were nice enough to take my phone number and chat for a bit.
"Your war?" Even if he didn't approach the soldiers with those exact words, it shows his thinking and I'm sure it colored how he sounded.

I grew up in a military town, Huntsville, Alabama, and he's right about everyone knowing someone in the service. Can't help it. And you know them as people, not generic soldiers, so you want to look out for them, the same as they look out for each other. They are making a sacrifice that few Americans make. You recognise that and it leads to respect.

Someone comes into town, a stranger and a journalist, asking questions, the natural tendency is the normal one, to pull together and clam up. The media have been consumed with stories of death and torture in Iraq, when the soldiers' experiences have been of gratitude and rebuilding. You tend to get suspicious.
I posted messages all over the Internet, mostly on veteran sites for the 101st. I was hoping for introductions. The responses I got ranged from "Isn't this how the guys at the Toledo Blade got started?" to "You want to know about Iraq? Go there!"

...At the end of the night, a 50-something woman who had been singing Janis Joplin songs said she didn't think it was right for the media to show images of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. Not when you consider the beheadings and the hangings and not when you consider what the Iraqi resistance has done to our men and women. She remembers seeing a Vietnam vet take a wad of spit in the eye when he returned home. She was working as a bartender, and she said she'd never forget how sick that made her feel. She said the media is doing everything it can to recreate the circumstances that provided her with that memory.
Which just reinforces what I said above.

So, Chris found his soldier, one Steve Michanowicz. Davis wants to portray him as having been changed and troubled because of his experiences, but what I see is a troubled young man before he left, who still thinks he did the right thing!
Steve Michanowicz says he's been confused lately. He has trouble concentrating. Skinny, blond, and boyish, he's 23 but could easily pass for 19. He still gets carded in bars. But something changes when he talks about Iraq, about working 20-hour days, seven days a week in the stupefying desert heat, crushed by paranoia, fear, and doubt. Gravity starts to tug a little harder on him. He starts to look his age and then some. He rubs his eyes, and his voice drops to a whisper.
Read this paragraph closely and you'll see it's Davis who puts the description in, not Steve. We're being set up.
He may follow her back home. He may ramble around and play the blues.

"They messed you up," Smith says.

"Yeah," Michanowicz answers. "They messed me up."

Depending how you measure good fortune, Michanowicz is lucky. He made it back alive, arms and legs intact. But something's missing. Something isn't the same.
Since none of us, including Davis, knew him before we have to take his word, which Davis pretty strongly does.
"I knew after the first three days of basic training the Army wasn't for me," he adds. "But there is a long history of military service in my family. I felt a strong sense of duty and obligation. And I wanted the free college education. It's as simple as that.
I read this, and I think Steve was confused before he ever set foot in Iraq. Being thrown into war just solidified that.

One word that Steve uses over and over again in describing the Iraqi people is "hopeless." He seems to feel that whatever we're doing over there is hopeless, as the Iraqis just aren't capable of maintaining it on their own. That sure sounds like the soft racism of the Left to me. Iraq is an ancient culture going back to Mesopotamia and Hammurabi, the man who wrote the first recorded set of laws. Read those laws, as I have, and you'll marvel at their complexity and legalese, how they provide for almost every conceivable situation. That's not the work of a "hopeless" people. Look around the Arab world at the more stable countries (Egypt, etc.) and you'll see that they can take care of themselves; even mullocracy Iran has a good economy.
Michanowicz really thinks the Iraqi people are hopeless. He blames them for almost everything that's gone wrong. He's confident America did the right thing, even if we've botched things, even if we did it for the wrong reasons. He's a mass of contradictions and admits it. One minute he wonders why he was sent to Iraq, and then he makes a fairly reasonable argument for going to war. He's seen combat, and he's seen peacekeeping operations that look an awful lot like combat. He's seen civilians die, and he knows how one's view of the world changes when bullets start carving your profile in the sand. He doesn't think his story is remarkable or unique.
He may be confused on some things, but he seems pretty damned clear about the important things, and positive, too.
"I'm sorry I don't have anything juicy to tell you," he says repeatedly.
I'll bet Chris was.
Michanowicz asks that I not include some disrespectful remarks he made about Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Notice Davis still got to make his point, even without the actual words!
His story seems a metaphor for America's experience in Iraq: Rushed decisions made on erroneous assumptions, followed by sobering revelations -- heroic acts of kindness reduced to white noise by an initial blunder. Michanowicz might not agree with such a liberal reading of his story.
Here is the crux of it. Davis had a story in mind, but his source didn't confirm it, so he just plows ahead anyway, hoping readers don't notice how Steve's words are poor buttress for Davis' thesis. Chris believes the war is wrong; Steve doesn't. Chris dresses up his story with Steve anyway. Don't look too closely.

I'm over-quoting here, so just go and read it. What comes through time and again from Steve's words is the good that is happening there, the good will of the soldiers to the Iraqis, the ability of the military to change to the situation that was rapidly changing around them, that the Iraqis are happy to see us there. Don't believe me?
Michanowicz was a part of a single platoon -- 30 soldiers -- sent to secure Zumar, a city of 7,000. "Maybe that is enough people to do the job," Michanowicz says with a shrug. "I don't know. But I do know that if the whole town had rioted, we'd all have been dead. We could call in helicopters, but by the time they got there, we'd be dead. It was only the grace of God that kept us alive. I mean you'd have 10 guys walking through town on patrol, surrounded by Iraqis. And they all wear robes. It's an armed population, and anyone could be disguising a weapon. Every time you search a vehicle you think, This is going to be the one that explodes.
Even the heavily armed and well-trained American army couldn't secure that city with only 30 men if the citizens didn't want it. They would have died, as would a whole lot more Iraqis. But that didn't happen.
It's hard to be critical of the war in Iraq without being accused of having a political agenda. For the record, Michanowicz didn't support President Bush in the 2000 election; Bush wasn't conservative enough. Michanowicz was a Pat Buchanan man. He respected Buchanan's flat-tax plan and his strong commitment to end legalized abortion. He admires Bush's faith and respects his Christian values. He won't vote for Kerry because Kerry voted against an omnibus bill that included $87 billion for the military.

A week after my first interview with him, I spent a wild night with Michanowicz over Memorial Day weekend. We terrorized the bars of Nashville's Lower Broadway, taking in some bad blues, worse rockabilly, and a little bit of glorious country music. He seemed more confident, less depressed than when I'd first interviewed him a week before. He seemed to be putting things together.

"If you want to make the angle of your story about how we were over-tasked and about how we can't do peacekeeping in a combat situation, I'd agree with that criticism," he says. He's afraid that as support for the war wanes, so too will support for the troops. He wants people to understand that war is hard. And when you're sleep-deprived for a year, judgment sometimes fails. Hope fails. Everything fails. And if the nail's not big enough, there is no point in blaming the hammer.
This pretty well undercuts what Davis wants you to believe, but it's way down at the end of the story, where a lot of folks don't get to. What they'll take away is Davis' writing from the top, which is misleading and leading.

My sense in reading this is that Davis wanted to criticise the war and wanted a soldier to act as his beard, so he could make all the criticisms behind the patriotic cover of uniform, avoiding being called "un-American." What should have been an opinion piece, and that would have been fine regardless of his leanings, was tarted up with a bad costume and paraded about as "truth." It's a disservice to Flyer readers, though I also suspect that a great many will fall for it unthinking. That's a shame.

And shame on Chris.

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