Monday, November 9, 2015

Media, Military, and Mutual Necessity

James Cornelison

Media coverage of war has a complex history, from the earliest sedition acts to the roll of the press during Vietnam, from exposing the evils we fight against to exposing the evils done in pursuit of that end. As was prominently the case in the latter half of the 20th century, allowing the press to have access to military units, cultures, and operations is easily considered a privilege. Once ideal circumstances subside, there is little compromise reached. Instead, the media is forced to submit to the superior importance of what Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee calls “killing people and breaking things” whether anyone else knows about it or not. 

New York Times Contributor Tim Hsia does a pretty good job of explaining this bias, and the beneficial strategic role that press coverage can play. My critique would be that he does not go far enough. What’s unknown to many is that we live in a unique time period for military-civilian relations. Even though the costly actions of the cold war may have been less popular, they were so because they were more impactful. However, if a tourist visited our country today and observed the magnitude of our indulgence, international ignorance, and social gluttony, they’d be dubious to the fact we were a nation at war and have been for a decade and a half. The media serves as the nervous system between the hand and the brain, and if we sever that connection, we risk becoming two entities that are more harmful to each other when separated. 

The fact is that secrets are most dangerous to who they are kept from. Confidentiality definitely has its place in war, concealing military vulnerabilities from the enemy. But for what reasons do we conceal vulnerabilities from the constituency, from the regulators and overseers, from ourselves, and those who are best equipped to address them? Whistleblower Edward Snowden once responded to accusations by stating “If I’m a traitor, who did I betray? I gave all my information to the American public, to American journalists who are reporting on American issues.” 

One theory is that the military has become part of an independent government, or “deep state,” which operates based on its own agenda regardless of the public sentiment or the president or the congress. To a degree, autonomy is good in the military. It means efficiency and unity of mission. But autonomy is not required to be without accountability. When the unity is uncertain, and accountability is nonexistent, autonomy is just rigid responsiveness. And that unthinking reflexivity has brought down history’s most impressive militaries, and not before leaving its civilians ravaged and destitute.

It’s a delicate relationship between a government, and a citizenry, and a military. But journalists have the responsibility of defining those roles and obligations to each other. By doing so, they define the roles of each in absolute terms. There’s a very real danger implicit in the roles of either becoming confused or abandoned. In such a case, they will be adopted by others out of necessity, and there’s no telling whether the adopters are more or less qualified for the responsibility than their predecessors.

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