By Michael Yon
25 September 2009
The surprise discontinuation of my embedment from the British Army left my schedule in a train wreck. Until that decisive moment, I am told, that my embed with the British Army had lasted longer than anyone else’s; other than Ross Kemp’s. I’ve also been told that I’ve spent more time with the British Army in Iraq than any correspondent. So it’s fair to say, we have good history together.
In the last 12 months, I’ve embedded with the British Army in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, then over to the jungles of Brunei to attend a man-tracking school, and again back in Afghanistan. During that time, I’ve also been with U.S. forces in Iraq, the Philippines, and Afghanistan. I’ve accompanied the Lithuanians in Afghanistan and also been downrange for months without any troops or official assignment.
This dispatch, and many others, should have been about soldiers at war. But it’s not. This dispatch is being written in downtown Kandahar City and I have not seen a soldier in days. The Taliban is slowing winning this city. There have been many bombings and shootings since I arrived in disguise.
In 2006, Iraq was melting down and I had just written twelve dispatches that clearly stated we were losing in Afghanistan. Those dispatches caused a public uproar and the consequences were such that U.S. military refused to let me back into Iraq. Because of the U.S. military censorship in Iraq, I published a dispatch in the Weekly Standard titled, Censoring Iraq. General Petraeus emailed to me immediately, and if not for his intervention, there would have been Censoring Iraq II, III, IV, V…. Ultimately, dozens of dispatches about soldiers have been forever lost.
I returned to Iraq in 2006, and in 2007, I reported that the war had turned around and progress was clear. In 2008, I wrote that we had won the Iraq war. And although recent bombings have grabbed headlines, overall violence continues to decrease.
This brings us to Afghanistan, 2009.
My latest embed with British 2 Rifles, which began in July, was extended on at least two occasions. The British Ministry of Defence (MoD) had recently agreed that I would spend roughly one more month with 2 Rifles. My scheduled embeds with the United States Air Force and Marines were specifically arranged around the British schedule, and I was enjoying reporting on the excellent British troops.
However, on August 24th, with no warning, unseen faces of MoD discontinued my embed from 2 Rifles. The message that I was no longer embedded was emailed to me by Media Ops, just as I returned from an interesting firefight in the Green Zone. Luckily, none of our guys got hit, but I think the British soldiers may have killed some Taliban.
I do not know the reason for the embed termination. My best guess is that it relates to my sustained criticism that the British government is not properly resourcing its soldiers.
Before going further, it is essential to underscore the importance of the “Media Ops” in the war. When Media Ops fails to help correspondents report from the front, the public misses necessary information to make informed decisions about the war. Many soldiers in the British Media Ops are true professionals who strive constantly to improve at their tasks and work very well with correspondents. Their professionalism and understanding of the larger mission—ultimate victory—provide an invaluable service to the war effort.
But there are a few who should not be in uniform and it takes only one roach leg to spoil a perfect soup.
For example—without giving names so as not to tar and feather someone for his entire life when he still has a chance to change his behavior—the British Major running Media Ops at Camp Bastion has been particularly problematic. Even before my embed started with 2 Rifles, his words raised red flags among the correspondents about his priorities.
I had a specific incident with this British Media Ops Major.
The Major and I were driving in Camp Bastion around midday when it was very hot. A British soldier ran by wearing a rucksack. He was drenched in sweat under the blazing, dusty desert. I smiled because it’s great to see so many soldiers who work and train hard. Yet the Major cut fun at the soldier, saying he was dumb to be running in that heat. I nearly growled at the Major, but instead asked if he ever goes into combat. The answer was no. And, in fact, the Major does not leave the safety of Camp Bastion.
That a military officer would share a foul word about a combat soldier who was prepping for battle was offensive. Especially an officer who lives in an air-conditioned tent with a refrigerator stocked with chilled soft drinks. Just outside his tent are nice hot and cold showers. Five minutes away is a little Pizza Hut trailer, a coffee shop, stores, and a cookhouse.
This very Major had earned a foul reputation among his own kind for spending too much time on his Facebook page. I personally saw him being gratuitously rude to correspondents. Some correspondents—all were British—complained to me that when they wanted to interview senior British officers, they were told by this Major to submit written questions. The Major said they would receive videotaped answers that they could edit as if they were talking with the interviewee. (Presumably, senior British officers are avoiding the tough questions, such as, “So, when do you plan to send enough helicopters?”)
When I asked a different Media Ops officer about meeting with a senior British General in Afghanistan, I was told that submitting a CV (curriculum vitae) would be helpful, to which I laughed. A CV? How about this:
Name: Michael Yon
Notes: I will be in and affecting your battle space for years to come. (By the way, you are losing the war. Hiding from correspondents does not change that fact.)
This war is moving fast and there is no time for games. If a general does not want to tell his story, someone will tell it for him. He will have failed by losing another winnable media battle.
On a sidebar, before this article was published I was invited to the Netherlands by the esteemed James “Maggie” Megallas to attend an incredible Dutch remembrance for our World War II veterans.
For those who don’t know him, James Megellas is a retired U.S. Army officer who commanded Company "H" of the 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. Maggie is the most-decorated officer in the history of the 82nd Airborne Division, having received a Distinguished Service Cross, a Silver Star, and been nominated for the Medal of Honor. Maggie at 92 and is an extraordinary man. He can give an eloquent speech for an hour without a single written note.
He has spent a couple months in Afghanistan—in the worst places. He’s a true leader and a wise man, known to General McChrystal and General Petraeus. General Petraeus told me last week that CENTCOM had okayed Maggie’s trip to Afghanistan. Maggie is an American treasure. Last week in the Netherlands, “Maggie” was spending time General Petraeus and with European royalty, including Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands. General Petraeus and World War II veterans stayed several days at the same hotel Maggie and I were in.
In Holland, folks were lining up to honor and pay tribute to our World War II veterans and General Petraeus. I didn’t want to distract General Petraeus with any questions while he was so busy. But on about the third day, there was a tap on my shoulder and I was told that General Petraeus had some time if I wanted to talk.
I asked the good General some tough questions on Afghanistan—the kind that would end discussions with timid people—yet, like normal, he fielded those questions with the candor that I so respect in him and have come to expect. The same has happened to me with the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, and other top military leaders. Gates and Petraeus will field challenging, difficult questions and will take what you throw at them. Yet the British Media Ops in Afghanistan wants correspondents to submit written questions so they can provide tidy answers. That’s a sad joke and there are many correspondents, including me, who are not laughing.
More on the trip to Netherlands will be forthcoming, but now back to Afghanistan:
At Camp Bastion there are two tents at Media Ops. One tent is for the Media Ops staff and the other is for the itinerant correspondents. When ever the Internet died in the correspondents’ tent, the Major in question let the journalists use the Internet in the staff tent. That was helpful and appreciated. But he locked the door at night (the tent has a door) and kept it that way until the morning so that no correspondent would wake him with keyboard tapping. Not helpful on transmitting information.
At a glance, that seems trivial stuff, really. But it’s not trivial when you know that these are the same Media Ops people—who do not leave their base or go on missions—who are spooling out “the message” to the media. They are clueless about the state of the war in Afghanistan. For instance, many of the Media Ops officers will insist that we have enough helicopters in Afghanistan. Those officers are either completely oblivious to the actuality of the situation or lying.
General Petraeus told me straight up that we don’t have enough and that we doubled our helicopters in the last four months and are in the process of fielding “two more fistfuls.” (He did not give specific numbers.) Those BS-filled officers who deny the obvious are, in fact, symptomatic to why we are losing the war.
When I deliver good news, out rolls the red carpet. Bad news, and it’s time to fight again. Only now it’s not Censoring Iraq, it’s Censoring Helmand. And it’s not the U.S. doing it this time, but the British government. The British people are demanding truth and they deserve accountability. They aren’t getting it from Camp Bastion.
Some of the Media Ops guys in Afghanistan are good at something such as threatening future access if a correspondent shows “attitude” about being poorly treated. My answer is go to hell. They can take their access and. . . . I work for the soldiers, for the readers, and for the people in general. If Media Ops chooses to be an obstacle, that is their choice.
After being summarily disembedded it took days—due to the helicopter shortage—to catch a helicopter from the Green Zone and head over to the posh Media Ops tent. There I found the same Major still up to his old attitude with some of the correspondents.
Meanwhile, because of the abrupt embed, my scheduling problems were unfolding. The U.S. Marines, of whom I have never seen treat anyone like the British Major treats correspondents, wanted to take me. But the earliest I could embed with them was on 16 September. This fell at the same time I needed to punch out and head to Eindhoven in The Netherlands for the World War II remembrance ceremonies which I had been invited to long ago. The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNAF) had made arrangements to fly me from Afghanistan to Eindhoven. Disembedded or not, it should have been a simple matter for me to have a few days, even out of pure courtesy, where I could settle some business with the U. S. Air Force and U.S. Marines. But the boss of Media Ops in Afghanistan, Lt Col Nick Richardson in Lashkar Gah, through the Major at Bastion, demanded that I leave the Regional Command South (RC-South) which is under British control.
I said in essence, hold on, partner, are you saying that you are knowingly interfering with my ability to arrange an embed with the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Marines? Especially after you abruptly released me as correspondent? Because if that’s what Media Ops was saying, then we were going to have a Texas-sized fight.
The boss of Media Ops in Afghanistan Lt. Col. Richardson has tweaked other peoples’ BS sensors on the helicopter issue, including Daniel Bennett at the Frontline Club. Richardson is doing more damage to the war effort than the Taliban media machine. By perpetrating falsehoods that undermine our combat capacity, Richardson has helped the enemy.
Some of the smokescreens are less important but they are demonstrative of the pattern: On 20 August a, CH-47 helicopter was shot down by a Taliban RPG during a British Special Forces mission. Richardson reported that the aircraft landed due to an engine fire. Some hours later, while I was on a mission nearby, the Taliban were singing over the radios about shooting it down. I heard the rumble when the helicopter was destroyed by airstrikes. The Taliban knew they hit the helicopter. So who is Richardson lying to? Not the enemy…unless the enemy is the British public.
Stephen Grey and others have noted the censorship:
“Despite the risk of being blacklisted and refused access to report from the frontline, journalists are speaking out about what they say is the government's attempt to control the news. It is "lamentable", says one Fleet Street foreign editor; the Times correspondent Anthony Loyd describes it as "outrageous"; Christina Lamb of the Sunday Times calls it "indefensible"; it is "redolent of Comical Ali", says the Sun's defence editor, Tom Newton Dunn.
“Almost all journalists travelling with British forces are ordered to email their copy to the military's press officers in Helmand before publication. Many fear that negative coverage could mean trips back to the frontline are cancelled or delayed.”
The Media Ops boys are treating this like a game.
Eventually I had a meeting at the same table with a U.S. Air Force officer, a U.S. Marine officer, and the British Major from Media Ops in an attempt to work out a solution that would get me with the Air Force or Marines. The Major was docile in the presence of the two other officers. The Marine and Air Force officers said that they were willing and happy to help. Despite their goodwill, the scheduling train wreck had other moving issues stacking up, and the British Media Ops weren’t done with playing games.
In addition to the disembed, the British Media Ops were insisting that I leave RC-South at once. Let’s be clear – this was Afghanistan, not London where I can easily hail a cab or jump on The Tube. By their demands, the Media Ops folks were ignoring the obvious truth that it takes time, planning, and much coordination to move anyone, soldiers or correspondents, around Afghanistan.
Also, Media Ops knew that I was waiting for two important packages to arrive at Camp Bastion – packages that took a great amount of time and expense to send for. When I brought this up, the Major said he had checked into the packages and that because there was no FedEx in Camp Bastion, my packages must be in Kabul.
This was a flat out lie. When soldiers hear something that is patently false, they call it “bullshit.” I looked at the Major and said, “Bullshit,” to which he stomped out. He later said I had cursed him, which, if by calling him on his lie he implied that I was cursing him, then so be it; he was right. It was bullshit because there is a FedEx and a DHL in Camp Bastion. Something you would think (and hope) a Media Ops guy would know about his own camp.
The Major said again that Lt. Col. Nick Richardson demanded that I leave RC-South, and that Media Ops would forward my satellite and night vision gear that was in transit. Before the Major had stomped out, I said that I was not leaving Camp Bastion until those packages were in my hands. I told him to call Lt. Col. Nick Richardson at Lashkar Gah—a nearby base—and say that if Richardson wants me gone, he’d need to call the Royal Military Police (RMP). The satellite gear is crucial to the operation and the night vision gear is expensive. I was not going to leave without the gear unless under arrest. I had heard the Major arrogantly tell a correspondent how a soldier had punched another correspondent and “knocked him on his ass.” Bullying apparently had been working for him; he was still doing it.
“Go ahead,” I said, “Call the RMPs right now. Have them come down and flex cuff me and put me on an airplane out of here.” I waited for the RMP’s to arrive and arrest me. At least they would be professionals.
There is the maxim that a customer can judge the cleanliness of a restaurant’s kitchen by the restroom. After much experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, I have discovered another: Soldiers always treat correspondents they way they treat the local people. When soldiers treat correspondents badly, they treat local people even worse and are creating enemies. Those troops who brag about how they mistreat or detest correspondents are abusing and resentful of the local population, and they cannot win this sort of war. The people will kill them and the media will bash them and they will blame the people and the media. When a soldier alienates sympathetic correspondents, he has no real chance against mortal enemies such as the Taliban and al Qaeda, and they will defeat him. Yet there is subtlety: for “the people,” in the case of Media Ops, is you.
The Major doesn’t deal with Afghans. Afghans are not his target and it is not correspondents who are being denied access. YOU are being denied access. YOU are resented and deceived, and people like Minister of Defence, Bob Ainsworth, wish to separate realities from readers.
The reader is my boss, and my job is to observe, analyze where possible, and report back. When Media Ops or others try to deceive my boss, I fight for my boss. That’s my job and duty.
I told some U.S. Marine officers about issues with Media Ops. The Marines wanted to take me but there was a pesky twelve-day wait before I could start with them, and as mentioned I needed to get to The Netherlands. Luckily, the Marines and Air Force helped me get the packages.
The problem with embedding with the U.S. Air Force, as with the U.S. Marines, was timing. The U.S. Air Force rescue folks, the Pedros, were going home to America and were being replaced but there was a window of opportunity before that happened. The bottom line: Air Force Pedros took me on three missions, but it could have been a lot more.
Meanwhile, the British Media Ops, who backed down from the arrest, made a Plan B. The Major said I must leave the media tent because fourteen journalists were coming and needed space. There were six bunks and two cots, meaning all fourteen spots would be filled. I asked the Major who the journalists were and when they were coming. The Major answered that he didn’t exactly know who was coming or when, but they were (or might be) coming, and they needed space. The Major was easier to read than a five year-old, and too sad a specimen to be angry with. I had been sleeping outside for weeks and would readily continue, but instead contacted the Pedro guys who let me stay with them. Ironically, our Pedro teams happened to be staying with British 2 Rifles at Camp Bastion—and so 2 Rifles welcomed me back.
This was all bizarre. Although the British Media Ops kicked me out, I was now staying in a tent with the U.S. Air Force who were also staying with British soldiers, so I was right back at home.
Word had somehow spread that I told Media Ops to have me arrested. I had not mentioned the confrontation. Word must have gotten out from Media Ops themselves and some journalists soon realized that a fight was on. The correspondents I was talking with did not like Media Ops—not one bit—and support poured in.
An email came from a fellow correspondent with these words:
“During all of this time I was aware that your own predicament was also strained with the Pic [Media Ops]. Rumour reached me in […] that you had told the pic team in Bastion that if they wanted you out then they’d have to get the RMPs to arrest you, and that they were forced to back down! (I don’t know if the story was true or not but it was a huge morale boost to all who heard it in [...].)”
The British soldiers from 2 Rifles were angry with Media Ops for ending the reporting and their families are forever deprived of the dispatches that would have been written. Media Ops said they needed the space, but nobody replaced me in combat, and nobody is likely to. Media Ops lied again.
Meanwhile, British citizens began demanding answers from their government.
A question was asked and Minister of Defence Bob Ainsworth made public his reply:
Ann Winterton (Congleton, Conservative)
To ask the Secretary of State for Defense for what reasons the journalist Michael Yon is no longer embedded with British armed forces in Afghanistan.
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 14 September 2009, c2121W)
Bob Ainsworth (Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence; Coventry North East, Labour)
Opportunities to embed with Task Force Helmand are in high demand from across the media—national, regional, print, broadcast, specialist and new media. It is not possible to meet all requests and slots must be time-limited to ensure that the opportunities are shared as widely as possible. A normal embed for a national news organisation will last on average around two to three weeks, including time for travel.
Michael Yon had been embedded with British forces on a number of occasions before his recent visit—twice in Iraq in 2007, and once in Afghanistan in 2008. His latest embed had been scheduled to last for two weeks but it was extended to take account of delays to his arrival.
In all, his stay was extended twice and he was embedded for five weeks—much longer than is normally the case, and longer than had been agreed with him before he went. He was facilitated by British forces in a number of locations and given a high level of access both to the operations and to our personnel. At the end of this five-week period Task Force Helmand ended his embed as they were no longer able to support it given their other commitments, including other media visits.
That’s hogwash, Mr. Ainsworth. Pure hogwash!
The fact that the British Minister of Defence (MoD) would go on record with hogwash is again symptomatic of a much larger problem. Mr. Ainsworth is lying to the British public about the helicopter issue in Afghanistan. Mr. Ainsworth tells the British public that British soldiers have enough helicopters. British troops are suffering—even dying—for those lies. Mr. Ainsworth is, in effect, murdering British soldiers by not resourcing them.
If the British MoD is demanding that I be complicit in their lies to gain access to their soldiers, I decline. I strongly believe that the embed was cancelled due to my criticism of the helicopter shortage. Yet helicopters are just the most obvious issue that needs to be raised and addressed.
This story rings true:
From The Sunday Times
August 30, 2009
Bob Ainsworth, the defense secretary, has been accused of a cover-up over the death of the first British soldier to be killed in action in the Nato operation in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, by smearing his commanding officer.
The story continues:
“This will prove Bob Ainsworth was trying to cover up the real reason for James’s death. He was trying to shift blame away from the lack of equipment for which the MoD was responsible and negligent,” Philippson said.
Bob Ainsworth is covered in British blood and painfully deceptive. Henceforth, he will always be known as “Bullshit Bob” to me.
My relationship with the British military is not diminished and I would go into combat with their soldiers anytime. My respect for British soldiers is immense and undying. But I’m ready to throw down with Media Ops if they even glance in my direction. I refuse to work with the crew at Camp Bastion.
It’s hard to forget the Major’s cutting insults at the soldier who was training in the heat as a commendable young man. Any combat troop, whether they are pilots, PJs, sailors, special operations, or my favorite—the infantry—should never be the subject of jokes or derision from any military leader of any rank. The infantry soldiers are out there living like animals, taking bullets and getting blown up and, all while the Major sits back in his comfortable tent, playing on Facebook and watching The Simpsons. Those combat troops, British and American, are my family. That Major and his ilk should not cut fun of them.
Bottom line for the bad apples: Nobody is asking for access. This is not a game. Stay out of the way.
[Note: Word arrived that the Media Ops crew has been replaced during a normal rotation.]