Posts Tagged ‘Armed Forces’

Politically Correct Photos

April 21, 2012

Several years ago I found a book in a flea market the likes of which I’d never seen before. It’s a collection of macabre photos of dead soldiers in the field of battle. They are a faithful representation of the reality of war.

The soldiers had died in the most horrible ways and their bodies were perfect reflections of their last suffering. Heads cut in half, bodies ripped apart, extremities abandoned in the battlefield, panic etched on their faces, uniforms drenched in blood.

This book could never be published nowadays. Nobody would dare to use these photographs in any publication. Today’s war photos have to be aseptic, politically correct. That is, they can’t convey the reality of war.

The book made a big impact on me, but far from thinking that it is inappropriate, I would actually suggest that it should be required reading for any person in favor of sending troops to a war zone. It may be a cliché, but I do believe that it’s often true that if those who declared war had to actually fight in one, without a doubt, there would be fewer wars.

This also applies to the general public. Wars must be the very last option for a nation; however, too often this has not happened. That is why it’s necessary that those who are in favor of going to war clearly see the human cost of these wars, because one thing is to know about it intellectually and a very different one is to see the shattered bodies in a photo.

I wish that those in favor of wars would go to those battlefields to see those corpses in person but, since that isn’t possible, at least they could see the consequences of the war in a photograph. That is the reality faced by the young and brave soldiers that are sent to fight in those conflicts. The least we can do for these patriots is to faithfully convey the extremely difficult situation they are faced with. This would also let us understand much better the problems they face when coming back to their lives after the war.

Sadly, sometimes war is unavoidable, although many times it isn’t and there are many people too eager to shout for war to solve a problem without having the least notion of its implications. Or without caring because neither they nor their relatives will have to fight. Their only contact with that war are the sterilized photos in newspapers and the politically correct videos broadcast in the news. No, we need books like the one I found at the flea market, a true visual slap in the face for readers so they truly understand that war isn’t a video game, but a true tragedy, the worst situation imaginable.

Even though the United States has lost many lives in different conflicts, it hasn’t suffered a war on its territory since its Civil War. The only exception is the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which led to the United States fighting in World War II. That is, many families have lost loved ones in the two World Wars as well as in conflicts such as Korea and Vietnam, but for the majority of the population, fortunately, these conflicts have not led to losses in their families. Unless it’s a family with members in the Armed Forces, this leads to the general population often seeing these wars as far off events, not directly affecting their daily lives and the lives of their families.

And now there is a controversy because The Los Angeles Times published photos of some US soldiers posing with the bodies of dead Taliban in Afghanistan. This is a different issue, since even the US Armed Forces have stated that this was inappropriate behavior. However, it also addresses the issue at hand about whether or not the images of war should be shown by the media sanitized or as they truly are.

As I said before, sometimes war is necessary. Diplomatic language and nice words would not have stopped Hitler during World War II. There had to be a war and its cost was enormous: over 50 million dead. Nevertheless, the nation was willing to make the sacrifice and there were millions of volunteers ready to fight and stop Hitler.

The people most opposed to going to war are generally those who have had to fight one previously. The reason is because they understand very well what it means. Sometimes war is necessary, but even if that is the case, I think it’s essential that the public understand as clearly as possible the implications of war for those who must die or be injured in the field of battle, and this doesn’t even address the psychological effects of having to live such a hellish experience. Hopefully every once in a while the photos shown by the media will reflect that reality.

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The General in his Labyrinth

June 24, 2010

The newest victim of a lack of Media Training is a US Army general by the name of Stanley McChrystal.  Even though he had a successful 35 year-long career in the Armed Forces, it quickly crashed down because he was not ready to deal with the media.

A four-star general in charge of the war in Afghanistan could hardly be considered stupid.  Therefore, it begs the question:  How could he make such a fatal mistake?

I have covered many wars and can say that I have not observed armed forces where its members can speak with as much freedom as those of the United States.  They are always accessible on the battlefield and their senior commanders make them available for interviews.  Sometimes they praise their leaders’ decisions and other times they don’t, freely talking about their point of view.  They also talk about whether or not they agree or disagree with fighting in a specific campaign.  This type of openness is not usual among other armed forces.

However, McChrystal clearly went above and beyond this openness.  During an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine he said that the White House’s National Security Advisor was a “clown,” stated that President Obama seemed to be “intimidated and absent” while meeting with US military leaders, referred to Vice President Joe Biden with an euphemism that cannot be quoted on this blog and which definitely was not a compliment, and on top of all of this, pretty much said that the US Ambassador to Kabul was a traitor.

It seems obvious to me that McChrystal did not intend to make these critical comments and then resign because he disagreed with how the war in Afghanistan was being carried out.  If this had been the case, after reading the interview, he would not have immediately called Vice President Joe Biden to apologize nor would he have waited until President Obama decided whether or not to fire him.  He would have preemptively resigned.  His press assistant did immediately lose his job.

McChrystal’s problem is that he was never trained about how to deal with the media.

Was the reporter who interviewed him sufficiently clear when he told him that everything McChrystal said would be used in the article?  Did McChrystal and his advisors think they could speak candidly with the journalist and that whatever they said would not be published and would be considered comments among “friends”?  Did they make it perfectly clear to the journalist that all of those comments were “off the record”?  Does McChrystal understand that a journalist’s main loyalty is not to his “new military friends” but to get good stories for his or her publication or channel?

Neither McChrystal nor his advisors deny making the statements in question, but I think that they never thought that they would be quoted verbatim.  No one wants to end such a distinguished career on such a disgraceful note.

A simple Media Training course would have saved McChrystal from this embarrassing end to his career and he would still be the supreme commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan.  Tony Hayward, British Petroleum’s CEO, would also have spared himself from the many confrontations he has faced and saved quite a bit of money if he had been trained properly.  Hayward’s mistakes during the Gulf of Mexico crisis are way too many to outline in this article.  His behavior only served to exacerbate an already difficult situation.

General McChrystal is a product of the Special Forces.  A secretive organization that works in the shadows, away from the public eye.  McChrystal was admired by his subordinates because he led by example.  In 2005, for example, he led a small group of commandoes in Iraq in a pre-dawn attack against one of the hideouts of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an Al Qaeda leader who was subsequently killed in combat.  The insurgents surrounded the small group of US soldiers and McChrystal fought valiantly in the intense battle.  It is not usual for a four-star general to risk his life in such a way.

McChrystal was used to the world of undercover operations.  To live in the shadows.  However, when he was named to such a high-profile job as that of supreme commander of ground forces of the Afghan war, he entered a completely different and unknown world for him.  And one of the most drastic changes was the continuous contact with the press.

It is obvious to me that no one trained him to deal effectively with the media.  A mistake that decimates his 35-year career of sacrifice for his nation.  He leaves through the back door, accused by the President of questioning the civil authority over the Pentagon and of bringing division to the team in charge of the war in Afghanistan.  Strong accusations all, especially now that the conflict in that country intensifies and the number of dead Americans is on the increase.  The great majority of Americans, according to recent polls, don’t see the reason behind continuing the war.  This incident with McChrystal definitely does not help the Administration at this junction.

In a society such as ours, with an ongoing news cycle where information flows 24 hours a day, Media Training is not a luxury, it is a necessity for anyone who is or wants to be a part of that cycle.

Media Training should be a required part of the curriculum at colleges and universities.  Whether for members of the military, scientists, physicians, economists, or basically any professional.

For example, someone can spend years in business school preparing to be an excellent manager.  However, if he or she does not know how to communicate effectively, they will miss an important value added component.  Not only because they miss out on opportunities to get free, positive publicity through the media.  Or because they won’t be ready to communicate well during times of crisis.  But, also because all these techniques to communicate effectively with the media are also applicable to internal communications in any organization.  And of course, they can also be used to communicate effectively with external stakeholders.  

The victims of this lack of Media Training will continue to surface.  McChrystal is only the most recent one.  A new one will soon come to our attention.  Stay tuned.