Sunday, July 25, 2010

Body Armor, War, and Media Coverage

Posted by Chris at 1/17/2008 2:37 PM...

Christian Lowe's post about potential changes in the amount of body armor U.S. troops wear from Anbar province has stirred up a storm of consternation in's discussion forums. The typical response is that Christian broke Operational Security by publishing, and this is an example of media treason/stupidity, and represents an despicable Jane Fonda-like act that mindlessly puts or troops at risk. Of course, this is all tied to the idea that the "liberal" media doesn't care about casualties or wants them to fail.

A small minority of posters argue that Christian's article is not the threat his detractors claim. They contend that not only is it more likely that insurgents will find out about armor changes simply by watching U.S. patrols, but that the additional maneuverability gained from the reduced load, and the enhanced interactions with Iraqi civilian resulting from presenting a less-fearful aspect are a net benefit of the change.

My contribution to the few comments directly to Christian's blog was:'s a bit hard to do COIN operations when you have so much armor that it limits your interaction with the local population. Gaining their confidence is the key to ensure that the current downward trend in violence in Anbar and Baghdad is a lasting one. Fighting is only part of the equation. Now that a modicum of physical security is in place, U.S. troops need to gain the trust and cooperation of the local populace in order to prevent a resurgence in violence. Part of that is not appearing threatening to the average person going about their daily life.

I think the reactions to Christian's post, particularly in the forums are a bit over the top. There's a lot of knee-jerk "blame the media/we need to limit the press/the 'liberal' media are traitors" shouting going on. Yes - insurgents monitor U.S. media, but they also watch the streets and keep an eye on our troops in ways that are much more direct. I understand the fear of additional casualties resulting from this type of coverage, but it's a far cry from commenting on changes in activities to Jane Fonda posing near an anti-aircraft gun or outing a POW's attempt to communicate with the outside. If we're so worried about the potential OPSEC problems from articles like this, shouldn't we also be concerned over coverage of the debate over body armor testing (think the Dragonscale controversy), design of the M-RAP, discussions of anti-mortar systems, communities having to provide armor for their National Guard units, dust testing of assault rifles, or the grounding of F-15's due to structural problems? I think people need to step back and think about this a little, and not drag the emotional arguments over the media's role in Vietnam out of the discussion.

The role of the media in Vietnam remains controversial, with most people, particularly in the military accepting the "stabbed-in-the-back" argument that the United States lost Vietnam just when it was winning the war due to negative media coverage. This reasoning focuses on the idea that the Tet Offensive of 1968 was a military victory for the United States, that was turned into a loss by the public reaction, and media coverage that seemed to argue that an enemy capable of such an offensive was unbeatable. It ignores the reality that the insurgency was not only conducted by Northern infiltrators, but by a dedicated indigenous South Vietnamese population. It ignores the fact that the Johnson administration and the JCS lied to the American public about how the war was going for years, and that Gen. Westmoreland and the JCS never devised a governing strategy for winning the war beyond simple attrition of the enemy. Finally, it ignores the fact that the Vietnamese were fighting for their independence, and had a long history of guerrilla warfare against "superior" enemy forces occupying their country.

In effect, the adherents to the "media lost Vietnam" meme are blaming the press for doing its job while ignoring the realities of the war itself. Now they are letting that baggage to color their interpretation of current events, reducing the conversation to name-calling. After Operation Desert Storm, the Army claimed it had laid the ghosts of Vietnam to rest. Perhaps its time for the rest of us to do so as well.

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