Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Write the Story, Not the Agenda

I got an email from regular commenter Lance, who is about to head to Iraq with his National Guard unit, alerting me to an AP story (which ran in the Commercial Appeal) that covered his regiment, the 278th Armored Cavalry.

Let's start with the story itself. The reporter includes some pretty obvious "insights" like this:
Once in Iraq, the morale among National Guard troops is far lower than their counterparts in the regular Army, according to a December survey by Northwestern University sociologist Charles Moskos. Guard soldiers also felt less prepared than regular Army troops, and reported disliking full-time Army life.

Guard troops feel like Army commanders treat them as second-class soldiers, said Moskos, who noted that the Army is trying to fix the situation by getting them new equipment....

The average Guard soldier is older, with a fair number in their 50s. And while an Army unit is a cross section of America - a unit from the 278th is a cross section only of Tennessee cities such as Knoxville or Athens or Cookeville.

Older, part-time soldiers aren't as fit as younger troops in the Army, but age has its advantages, said Lt. Col. Wayne Honeycutt, second in command of the unit.
Some of this is just plain silly, like making an issue of the Guard unit's make-up versus the Army's. Does the author even understand how either work?

But after making the case in the first part of the article that the unit isn't ready, the author then refutes both the headline and the original thrust by showing that's not the case! It's only if you read all the way down, though, that you'll learn this. Skimmers will miss it altogether.

For example, early on the author writes:
And they say those units are being set up to fail because they haven't been properly trained to fight.

"They are nowhere near the level of proficiency that active troops are," said retired Army Col. David Hackworth, a critic of current Pentagon policy.
and then mere paragraphs later notes in passing:
The unit is making stops in Mississippi and California at the National Training Center to make sure soldiers are trained to fight insurgents. It could be six months before they see Iraq.

"There's no doubt in my mind we'll be equipped properly and trained to standards," Honeycutt said.
Well, Lance was incensed enough to write a letter to the editor about it to his local paper.
Many Guard members are offended by the incorrect idea that we are “being set up to fail because (we) haven’t been properly trained to fight.” Before we deploy, National Guard units spend six months training stateside to reach the active duty force’s level of proficiency. Actual time spent overseas for both active and reservist components is roughly 12 months. It is precisely because we are not a full-time force that we spend an additional six months preparing to deploy before our year-long tour....

The idea that the “278th never expected to be fighting in Iraq” is particularly egregious. While not knowing where or when, I knew I would eventually be deployed the moment that second plane hit the south tower on Sept. 11. Like other Guard members, I will leave a career and family I love (I report on my six-month wedding anniversary) to make sure the battle is fought on shores other than our own. Contrary to popular belief, members of the National Guard do not enlist for tuition benefits or other incentives — they join because they wish to serve their country.
Lance also pointed me to a new blogger who had this to say:
The article calls into question the National Guard's readiness to fight in Iraq. It also leaves readers, particularly readers with loved ones in the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, worried if the unit is trained and prepared to confront the challenges that lie ahead.
Note to baseball fans, the blog is called "South End Grounds" and it's a baseball blog!

I see all this as FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) on the part of the writer. A story that says "In spite of all the hardships they face, the 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment is looking forward to serving their county." doesn't fit the "us vs. them" structure most reporters look for. Pitting various "experts" around the "Are they ready?" question is more their form. Plus, my example reeks of... you know, patriotism and stuff. Can't have that!

Thanks to Lance for pointing this out, and for speaking up. Please keep him in your thoughts and prayers as he serves. I've had the pleasure of the occasional email exchange and he's a pretty rockin' guy. (Literally! But he'll have to tell you that story. Maybe if you buy him a beer when he returns...?)

Good luck, Lance and, from all the regular Americans, be careful, OK?

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