The best war correspondent since Ernie Pyle ?

When I was about 10 years old, my parents had a copy of Ernie Pyle’s book about his life in World War II. I read it and was impressed, inexperienced as I was. Ernie Pyle was killed by a sniper at Okinawa. There were great war correspondents in Korea. I remember Marguerite Higgins, who was probably the model for the woman war correspondent in WEB Griffin’s books about that war. The later reporters in Vietnam, from what I know, spent most of their time in Saigon. Higgins was walking next to Robert Capa, the greatest war photographer, when he stepped on the land mine that killed him. She didn’t hang around bars.

The only real war correspondent I know of now is Michael Yon. I read his book, Moment of Truth in Iraq and wrote a review. The only other book that compares with it is Bing West’s The Strongest Tribe but this is because West can add a lot of background from his long history going back to Vietnam. Yon had his troubles, mostly with officious PA officers in Iraq, but has had strong support from the soldiers.

With Iraq winding down, he went next to Afghanistan. Most of his reporting has been on his blog or, more recently, on his facebook page. He has had a lot of trouble with the generals in Afghanistan. Some of us who have doubts about the progress and the chances for success, tend to take his side. He was suddenly expelled from his embed with a US unit several weeks ago. Many of us believed this was due to his harsh criticism of the Canadian general who commanded the sector where a critical bridge that had been left unprotected, was blown up by the Taliban.

Please stay with me. This matters.

And so it goes like this:

Major General Nick Carter (UK) commands RC-South.

Brigadier General Daniel Menard (Canada) commands Task Force Kandahar.

Under BG Menard’s command are three U.S. Battalions and just over 2,800 Canadian forces. (U.S. battalions: 1-12 Infantry Reg.; 2-508th Parachute Infantry Regiment; 97th Military Police Battalion). American combat forces comprise a substantial portion of Menard’s force structure, leaving his command and Canadian civilian leadership open to fair scrutiny, just as American leadership is open to Canadian inquiry. Moreover, while Canada increasingly shies from combat, American units under Canadian command will spill blood under Canadian military leadership that answers to Ottawa.

Kandahar Province is apportioned into battle spaces. As mentioned, TF-Stryker has responsibilities that include Spin Boldak and FOM on Highway 4 that crosses the Tarnak River Bridge. TF-Stryker, however, is not responsible for the bridge itself.

The British Royal Air Force (RAF) is responsible for something called the GDA. The GDA is the Ground Defense Area, and is responsible for security immediately around KAF. By all accounts, the RAF is doing a fine job. The GDA includes the area around the Tarnak River Bridge.

TF-K is responsible for Kandahar, but the specific area of the bridge belongs to the RAF. However, the bridge itself is guarded not by RAF but by ANP (Afghan National Police) mentored by the American 97th MPs. The 97th is under Canadian command through TF-K. And so, at the time of the attack, TF-K was responsible for the physical security on the bridge itself, while GDA had responsibility for the land around the bridge.

Which Coalition partner has final responsibility for this strategic bridge? Is it the RAF who “own” the ground, or TF-K who mentor the ANP guarding the bridge? If an officer were to say this vital bridge is solely the responsibility of the ANP, his judgment would be deemed unsound.

This kind of frankness got him expelled. He was accused of releasing names of KIA before families had been notified. He was accused of disclosing security information that violated OPSEC. None of this was true.

The general who got him expelled ? He was court martialed and convicted. Not for the bridge incident but for other offenses.

The other general Yon has been very critical of is McChrystal.

he writes, “McChrystal is bent over the coffin of the Afghan war with a hammer in his hand and a mouth full of nails”? When asked for his thoughts on the general state of the war, he says one must be intuitive rather than deductive. “Innumerable wild cards are always flying and so the best that one can do is study hard and watch and listen and give it time to mix.” If a reliance on feelings alone is hardly the metric from which one should draft a war plan, consider the recent words of General McChrystal. The purpose of the Marjah operation was to create an “irreversible feeling of momentum,” but, “You don’t feel it here but I’ll tell you, it’s a bleeding ulcer outside.”

Yon believes the war can still be won, but that a change of command is in order. At this level of warfare, he says, “McChrystal is like a man who has strapped on ice skates for the first time. He might be a great athlete, but he’s learning to skate during the Olympics.” Yon adds that publicly denouncing the commanding general of a war is not an easy thing for him to do, especially considering it means crossing swords with General Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, two men he greatly admires. Indeed, if anyone can turn this war around, Yon believes it is General Petraeus. He concedes such a return to the battlefield is unlikely, and suggests another general whose name fewer people have heard. “General James Mattis from the Marines. I get a good feeling about Mattis but I don’t know. General Petraeus is a known entity and he is solid gold.”

Now, we have the new developments with McChrystal. If you want to know what is happening, read Michael Yon.

5 thoughts on “The best war correspondent since Ernie Pyle ?”

  1. Michael Yon has an inflated sense of his own importance, as evidenced by his temper tantrums whenever someone in any military says “no” to him. I respect his knowledge and ability to get interesting stories, but I would think long and hard before anointing him the way you seem to have!

  2. He has been harshly criticized by the “milbloggers” in very much those terms. The trouble is, he keeps being proven right. I gave up on Afghanistan in April when his embed was cancelled. And stated my reasons a couple of weeks ago. I was also influenced by Kilcullen’s book. A fatal flaw, but typical of Obama, is that he did not have time for McChrystal when he appointed him after relieving his predecessor but now demands him to return because of a magazine interview. Everything with Obama is politics because it is all he knows.

    I think Yon may have a lot of self confidence after the past six years but who else would do what he has done? Dexter Filkins is also highly regarded, more for the backstory than for the frontline experience. Here is his opinion on the matter. It is no more optimistic than Yon’s but couched in more diplomatic language, as one might expert from a NY Times reporter. Yon is supported by his readers who donate money and by his books.

    I think Ernie Pyle might have had a lot of self confidence but we never got a chance to find out. Also, the newspapers were censored very firmly. There were no photos of American dead until after the war.

  3. Here’s some perspective (for what it’s worth) from Canada.

    I was (and perhaps am) a big fan of Michael Yon’s reporting. I use that tense deliberately; I’m Canadian, and I was somewhat offended by Yon’s [my perception, but not uniquely mine] a) off-handed dismissal of the idea of Canadian command of US troops since “Canada was leaving” and b) conclusion that because there was a clusterf**k in responsibility for an area that it was the US covering for Canadian dereliction. And his hockey comment was absolute crap.

    On the first, well, the US has loudly trumpeted its departure (much to the cost of the mission in Afghanistan). Blame your allies for actually listening to what your leaders say, I suppose.

    And pretend that your President (and Vice-President) would be deemed to be instantly impeached and tossed if he (or for the PC police, she) lost an important vote in the Congress or Senate, with either a forced election or a takeover of the opposition party.

    Then you might have some perspective of the quagmire our PM cheerfully (?) wades through, given that a lot of the country actually naively believed much of what your President said.

    On the second, all I’ll say is that Canada was losing more people in Afghanistan than Britain at one point. We’re a relatively small country compared to the big EuroPowers, and yet we’ve lost more people (even if Iraq is included) than any NATO ally except Britain and the US. This is not an argument for our departure; it’s simply to note that we’ve paid in blood and treasure, bigtime for our presence. And well we should. The cause in Afghanistan is one that should animate the West. That it doesn’t… well that’s another discussion.

    That said,
    Menard appears to have been a bad actor. Good on Yon for that.

    But the idea that Yon is the best war correspondent? OK, if you don’t mind trashing and demoralizing allies, sure.

    The sad thing is… maybe he is the best war correspondent.

  4. I didn’t claim he was the most popular. I think the Canadian trashing thing was Menard. Everybody that follows the details of the war (A minority) knows about Canada’s contribution. I think what he writes tracks quite well with the troops and what they think and do. Bing West’s book on Iraq was better as an explanation of the war. If you want to know how we could have won in Vietnam, read “The Village,” still in print after 35 years. Yon’s contribution, just like Ernie Pyle’s, is to spend all his time with the troops. He has little time for the brass and they reciprocate.

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