Thursday, July 14, 2011


And Countrywomen.   And Countrydogs and Manatees and Cockatoos and anybody else interested.  I always use Countrymen as a generic term.  It means:  You All.

My subject for today is the working press, its importance to us all as well as its increasing vulnerability and sometimes its foibles.  I expect to focus here on one significant member of our Establisment of Scribblers, the much-celebrated newsman Dexter Filkins.

A little background first. For a number of years Filkins covered the Near East for The New York Times, especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a lot of what we were able to discover about what was actually going on in that tortured corner of the world we found out through Filkins.  A brave and comparatively independent-minded reporter, Filkins was regularly "embedded" with our forces in the region, and a great deal of his reporting dealt with the stresses and triumphs and repeated acts of bravery that characterized our grunts on the ground. Filkins was also able to find his way among wartorn Iraqi civilians, especially in the villages, and his best reporting offers dozens of vignettes full of snapshots of their lives, their gutted houses and destroyed careers and hopelessness about the future.  Many of his most astute observations made it into his very effective book of essays, "The Forever War."

While he was working for the Times, and needed Department of Defense accreditation to get anywhere near the action, the tone of Filkins' reporting was, for the most part, affirmative.  Upending Sadam Hussein was justifiable, our military on the ground and their commanders in the Pentagon knew what they were doing, this would be a long slog but no doubt a necessary one.  Embedded once more in Afghanistan, Filkins kept a sharp eye out but beat the mandatory drum. 

Now, liberated finally from the policy guidelines of the Times, Filkins has moved over and become a staff writer for the somewhat less establishment-obligated New Yorker.  Filkins wrote the opening bit in the recent July 4, 2011 Talk of the Town. Paragraph by paragraph his observations amount to a litany of the hopelessness of our predicament, summing up the rotten prospects of a hopeless enterprise and concluding by quoting Obama's statement that "These long wars will come to a responsible end."  "That's an appropriately tortured construction for two badly managed occupations," Filkins concludes.  "As a prediction for Afghanistan, though, it seems more like a prayer."

I lay this out not to emphasize particularly that Filkins has moved over from the boosters to the jackals but rather to suggest how the system seems to work.  To be embedded is to be closed off, obligated, expected to tow the propaganda line.  Moreover, it implies that the focus of one's reporting will remain on subjects and approaches satisfactory to the military-industrial propaganda mill.

I am reminded of all this reminiscing about my own two recent brushes with Filkins.  It happens that I am a member of the Tampa affiliate of the Council on Foreign Relations.  Filkins has a close friend in the Bay area, and twice -- in 2007, I believe, and 2010 -- he has been generous enough to address our group.  He is an off-the-cuff speaker, personable but inclined to stick to his subject.  After both presentations I had the chance to ask him questions.  In 2007, with the overall military situation in Iraq under control, there were reports that three million barrels of oil a day were being lifted in the southern oil fields there.  Who was doing the lifting, I asked, and where was the money -- oil was approaching the $100-a-barrel  price, which suggested a $300,000,000 daily gross for somebody -- where was all that money going?

He didn't really know, Filkins was free to admit.  That was not something his bosses in the Times newsroom had asked him to look into.

By 2010 Filkins was based in Afghanistan.  Iraq was winding down, we were pulling out.  Filkins was quite straightforward about decrying the shifting and increasingly treacherous deal-making that characterized the Karzai regime -- a reflection of State Department leaks to keep the pressure up on the Afghan president.  I asked about Iraq.  We had built, according to the papers, fifteen city-sized bases in Iraq with mile-long runways to accommodate the supertankers and heavy bombers the Pentagon seemed to think we would require in the region.  These installations cost the American taxpayer billions, probably hundreds of billions of dollars.  Once we had withdrawn, which individuals or government entities in Iraq were going to wind up with these enormously valuable properties?

Filkins didn't know.  That wasn't in the playbook either.

I am taking the opportunity to dig into all of this not to embarrass Filkins, who is one of the best of his breed, but to suggest how our system manages the news and accordingly invites terrible initiatives and reckless decisions every one of us has to pay for later. We don't ask the right questions until it is too late. 




  1. The Taliban just hanged and eight your old boy because his father, an Afghan officer, would not give them a military vehicle. This is the future of Afghanistan, because twice, the Americans left the country in the lurch. After the Russians were forced to withdraw, America did nothing to help rebuild the country, which led to civil war. The Taliban took power and let Bin Laden and Al Queda plot the greatest terrorist attack in history, 9/11. America invaded Afghanistan and with the Northern Alliance, defeated the Taliban, who escaped into Pakistan. Invading Iraq instead of securing Afghanistan, Bush allowed the Taliban to return in force, aided by Pakistan, a country that has received billions in American aid. This is a monumental tragedy. There is a corrupt government that no one supports and a useless army that is supposed to take over the fight. This is all starting to make Vietnam look like a success.

  2. I think your reasoning is simplistic, and I assume that you have never worked as an embedded journalist yourself. While one certainly has greater empathy for the troops one is embedded with, this simply doesn't translate into a sympathy for the "military-industrial propaganda mill".

    Despite what I often hear, one just doesn't check one's intelligence at the door when embedded, unless one isn't that intelligent to begin with.

    You take Filkins to task for not reporting on 2 issues that happened to catch your eye.
    Do you really imagine reporters (even the great Mr Filkins) to be that omnipresent, all-seeing?
    Iraq and Afghanistan comprise large areas, not to mention Pakistan; furthermore, war is a beast not unlike the proverbial elephant, understood by blind men for its parts, hardly ever seen whole.

    Many great reporters have covered this area over the last several years, including Anthony Shadid, George Packer, etc, etc.
    No one has gotten it right all the time, in a comprehensive manner. This simply isn't possible, especially as events are unfolding.

    As for the Times and corruption in the south of Iraq, freelancer Steven Vincent reported on just that, was published in the Times op ed page and was killed a few days later. If the paper of record didn't have more reporters focusing on Basra, it wasn't because anybody's interests were being protected, it's because papers ain't what they used to be. In case you hadn't noticed, they've had to cut way back on reporters in the field.

    I tire of lefties casually dismissing the courageous and difficult work of reporters trying to untangle the knot of our wars, by claiming that they're intellectually and morally compromised because they were embedded.


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