Old Soldiers Never Die: They Just Comment on the Televised War
"Old soldiers never die; they just fade away," said Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1951. Little did he know that, in 2003, old soldiers would not only be very much with us, but they would also be omnipresent on network and cable television across the country and around the globe.
Warfare has been radically transformed since MacArthur's day, and so has the manner in which it is reported. In lieu of censored dispatches taking days and weeks to reach the American public, we now have embedded journalists reporting live from the front lines and retired military commentators providing analysis of operations as they are being executed.
The embedded journalists have been getting high marks for telling the story of the Iraq war from the small unit level, explaining the hardships endured by soldiers and marines, and risking their own lives by reporting from the tops of tanks on the front lines. Embedded journalists deserve appreciation for showing the world the mettle of U.S. and coalition forces.
Retired military television commentators, however, are not getting the same universal commendation for their efforts. Like so many things in life, there are few absolutes, and the retired military professionals have a mixed record. Let's look at the positive side first.
Reporting events in modern warfare in near "real time" is a fact of life. Whether the reporting of a war will be accurate, helpful, or even understandable is dependent upon the knowledge and background of those reporting it. This is where the retired military officials make their greatest contribution.
The vocabulary and acronyms used in the military are enough to confuse anyone not associated with them. For example, what are JDAMS, TLAMS, Warthogs, Bradleys, Abrams, SCUDS, VX, C-130s, B-1s, B-2s, MRLS, MREs, and thousands of other items?
Knowing the capabilities of myriad weapon systems, aircraft, ships, and vehicles used by the military is a prerequisite to understanding warfare. Previous military commanders and former operators of sophisticated weaponry and equipment are in a unique position to put all of this in context for an audience that is unfamiliar with the military's technological revolution and is trying to follow fast-paced, life-and-death events.
Then, there are the enemy forces. How will they fight? What are their capabilities? Are their weapon systems effective? Answers to these, and many other questions, are key to accurate and complete news coverage of a war. When reporting on the enemy, television's best source for analysts is, again, the ranks of the retired military, specifically those who served in intelligence or as military attaches.
Even more important, and obscure, than the technical side of war is the human dimension. Unless one has fought in war, the noise, odors, fatigue, anxiety, bravery, fear, pain, discomfort, and bonding that takes place in battle cannot be fully appreciated.
No one wants to be killed for their country, yet troops willingly put their lives on the line every day during a war. How does this feel? It sounds easy and satisfying to "kill the enemy." But other than having to actually kill someone face-to-face, one cannot know the lifelong impact of warfare. Only those who have "walked-the-walk" can credibly portray all the human emotions and psychological scars that military personnel experience in a war.
So, what aroused the ire of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, toward distinguished, retired military leaders who have provided excellent analysis and commentary on the war, while also educating many Americans about the military? Some of these retired military professionals crossed the line between explaining military operations and criticizing war plans to which they were not privy, while the conflict was fully engaged.
At the top of the Rumsfeld/Myers list of second-guessing generals must be Gen. Barry McCaffrey of MSNBC, one of the United States ' most decorated soldiers and a man with enormous, first-hand combat experience. Gen. McCaffrey was certainly sincere in his criticism of the first days of the ground war in Iraq , but he should have let the plan unfold further before stating his views.
Gen. Tommy Franks, the Commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched the ground war without a sizable reserve force in place and with his most lethal ground unit, the 4th Infantry Division, still weeks away from getting their equipment offloaded. Some retired military officers who believed this to be unnecessarily risky publicly stated as much on television even as coalition troops were fighting their way to Baghdad .
This is not an issue of freedom of the press, or of free speech. Of course, Americans possess and cherish these precious rights. Rather, it is an issue of timing.
In 700 B.C., the Greek poet Hesiod wrote, "Observe due measure, for right timing is in all things the most important factor." Hesiod had it right-and retired military officials second-guessing war plans while the battle was being fought had it wrong.