Tuesday, September 23, 2008

To Prove A Lie; But Why?

Entering Surobi

Much has been written of late about the ambush of the French near Surobi on August 18th, 2008 which cost the French ten dead and eighteen wounded, effectively destroying a thirty man platoon. A Globe and Mail story detailing the facts, but not the conclusions, of a French AAR (After Action Review) has received a good deal of attention. Michael Yon, who read the report, described as secret, referenced the newspaper story in three of his latest posts. Comments on Yon’s site have encouraged him to continue in an investigative vein.

Not to suppress the truth, but I respectfully disagree; with the comments, that is. To his credit, Mr. Yon did not break the news after reading the French AAR, while he did describe the Globe and Mail story as accurate in its depiction of the facts. There is no sense in denying the factuality once it has been leaked.

I have nothing but respect for Michael Yon. His writing is riveting, and he can tell the stories of soldiers in combat like few others I have read. Mr. Yon also rightly pointed to the general situation in Iraq as critical, adding a much-needed voice to the discussion of the state of affairs there pre-surge. While many were simply reporting disjointed stories of attacks and violence, Mr. Yon had the ability to see trends and analyze them into a picture of the overall state of affairs.

It is possible that his voice may have helped to bring about the surge. It certainly did no harm.

In the current situation, Mr. Yon is discussing information that has already been published in a mainstream outlet. There is probably not much further harm to be done, really. I applaud Mr. Yon for not breaking the story himself. Mr. Yon is a warrior himself, so he knew better. He knew what the potential damage was from such a release.

I think that there are several types of reporting that can be done from a theater of war. First and most immediately compelling is tactical reporting; the telling of the small unit story. This is the depiction of the experience of small groups of individual soldiers, their lives, their missions, and the challenges and the range of emotions that they experience. There are far too few reporters who have done this well. Some have done it with such subjectivity as to have nearly destroyed the credibility of combat journalists at the soldier level. In short, we don’t trust them; and we don’t want to be used to forward their particular agenda.

It is at the tactical level that Michael Yon in particular has excelled. Many are making comparisons to Ernie Pyle. It is a well-deserved comparison, in my humble opinion. Another such writer is Scott Kesterson. Both are independent journalists. I’m seeing a trend here. The reporters from larger organizations are largely failures at this. There is not a single one that comes to mind for me as a good example.

Strategic reporting is depicting the overall picture; the larger actions, goals, and strategies that drive the smaller actions. While not nearly as emotionally compelling or interesting at the human level, it is critically important to the people of the United States. Unfortunately, this is another area of failure for our MSM. The average American citizen has not been presented a coherent picture of the theaters of war. Instead, they have been subjected to static noise punctuated by occasional blood spattering and loud alarmist outbursts.

My observation is that this has occurred in both theaters. There is no consistent thread, other than the blood and outbursts, and understandably little comprehension by Joe Sixpack of the extent of the assistance being performed and the overall purpose. There is no capability for cogent criticism of the military, because there is no understandable picture of the overall effort other than disjointed blurbs presented at irregular intervals.

The fog of war is only penetrated by the blogs of war, and a few effective journalists who tend to be more bloggish than mainstream. Michael Yon and Scott Kesterson are among the better known… but not by Joe Sixpack who gets his news from the big news outlets on cable TV. I’d venture to say that ninety out of a hundred adults (perhaps more) have never heard of Michael Yon. For Scott Kesterson the number would be higher. For little guy bloggers like me, it's more like a few in a million who have ever visited.

The blogs, other than the “big picture” blogs like Abu Mukawama, are only effective in the tactical spectrum. Mr. Yon addresses the strategic spectrum as well, tying together his dispersed tactical experiences to form a larger picture. He was painting a strategic picture when he identified the civil war conditions in Iraq and failures in American approach.

The third area, socio-economic reporting, is the least compelling on the American soldier interest level and yet very compelling on the human level; especially the sad stories. There are many sad stories to be told. It’s too easy to find sad stories. It’s the success stories and the stories of quiet and heroic struggle that are harder to find. It’s harder to find the stories of tiny victories won by NGO workers fighting to rebuild shattered human support systems and educational capabilities, address health concerns like infant and maternal mortality, and the spread of hope like the spread of new schools across Afghanistan.

Michael Yon addressed the issue of the lack of journalistic interest in his latest post.

The failure to accurately convey knowledge, observations and experience of these issues and the progress or lack thereof has rendered another incomplete and dismal picture for Joe and Jane and all the little Sixpacks.

Okay, back to the topic; there is a developing microburst over French/NATO denials of the leaked AAR's as an official document. Noises are being made about this issue begging a leak of the document to prove the denial to be a denial in fact.


For those of you who don't know, AAR's contain certain information about the operation it describes; including what went right and what went wrong and how to do it better. We in the military realm, when we get ahold of the other guy's AAR refer to it by another moniker entirely.

We call it intel.

Why would someone want to leak intel to prove themselves correct? The purpose of an AAR is to help solve the issues that the unit ran into. Granted, the French had some issues. Losing 93% of a platoon to death or injury means that something went horribly awry. They have some things to look at and some problems to solve.

And we are all insanely curious about just what that was. Just insanely curious.

Heavy on the insane.

Commenters are screaming that the public has a right to know.

Oh, do they now? Really? To what purpose? What will the public do with this knowledge? How will they help to solve the problem? If there is information of potential intelligence value and the public only wants to know the dirty secrets for the sake of knowing the dirty secrets, then what is the purpose?

To prove that NATO, and the French, are fibbing? That's pretty much the only reason. To prove right the organization that first printed the news that possibly gave the Taliban clues as to potential weaknesses of the French. Here's one: look for the radio man. The French don't have a lot of radios! They possibly have problems with ammo resupply!

Boy, I'm freaking glad that we have no enemies out there who would have any interest in that information. I'm really glad that I know this information now, because I can solve that problem from Ohio. What's really cool is that others can apparently solve that problem from Ottawa, Vancouver, and Montreal.

Why the Globe and Mail would publish this information in the first place is beyond me. NATO's denial is patently silly at this point, but what was the purpose of the revelation?

I have written before about the issue of telling the truth, and I thoroughly agree with Michael Yon in his call for truthfulness from NATO, ISAF, and the U.S. Army. However, one must balance that with a reasonable assessment of the need to disclose certain information. What is the value of revealing intelligence in the name of truth?

I certainly hope that another French soldier doesn't lose his life because of a new tactic developed from the intelligence revealed.


  1. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/23/2008 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  2. I agree.

    There is no "right to know" why the French unit failed in combat. That would be knowledge for the French Government and NATO only. As an American, that is not my problem, and I have no "right to know," unless I want to go into combat with, or against, the French.

    I can guess who is behind this "right to know" push, and they are not our friends.

    There are some things military that the public could, and should know. But the particulars of why a small unit failed in combat is NOT one of them. Nobody, but nobody, really needs to know that, unless they are in the same force structure, or they are the enemy and can use that intel to their advantage.

  3. What national interest does it serve the USA to continue to fight in Afghanistan?

    Habu -- Sep 25, 2008 - 2:08 pm

    The general population has no business reading AAR's in wartime. That's why CALL went .mil access only.

  4. Now that I've read your complete article and had time to re-think my position on this, could it possibly be that they are setting up the Taliban to come out of their trenches because their AAR was deceptive? We did this in WWII when we landed on Normandy. We let it be known (by a supposed accident, of course) that we would be landing somewhere else so that the Germans would move their troops. Is it possible? Hmm...


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