War Isn't Sexy

Editor's note: U.S. Army Capt. Dan Sukman is serving a one-year deployment to Iraq. For previous entries and his bio, see the Soldier's Diary archives.

March 19, 2006

Instead of writing about daily life in this column, I wanted to take some time to respond to some of the reader mail I've received. First, let me say that the overwhelming response to Soldier's Diary has been great. Just about all the e-mails express support for the troops over here. For that, the team and I are very grateful.

• Readers write to Capt. Dan

Let me start with the easiest subject about which many readers have inquired: my dog. I have an American Eskimo named Jari (after my all-time favorite hockey player Jari Kurri). Prior to deploying, my mother and brother flew down to my house in Tennessee to drive my car to New York. They took Jari with them, and my mother has been doing a fantastic job watching and taking care of him while I have been away.

Now onto more complicated subjects. Several readers asked what we think of the political situation and whether we follow the news. My best answer is that we don’t think about it. There are many soldiers who spend most of their days outside the wire, in a guard tower or at a patrol base with no access to TV or the Internet. Everyone has their views, but they are not really discussed. I guess soldiers just have better things to worry about. If we talk about anything other than work, it’s going to be along the lines of sports, or telling the same stories over and over again about some crazy weekends we had back home.

Many readers mentioned media bias in the war coverage. While I don’t watch much news, here is my analysis, from the view of a brigade staff officer.

Most of the coverage seems to focus on the bad things that happen here — car bombs, murders, etc. — but that’s what news is. Footage of a car blowing up will always make for more readers or viewers than all the cars that do not explode. The analogy I will use here is this: If a triple homicide occurs in your hometown, everyone is tuned in to see what happened, but you will never see a news report about some guy going to work like he does every day.

During the initial invasion, embedded reporters traveled with many units on the drive to Baghdad. The overall press then was positive, and those who followed the news could see what soldiers were going through day in and day out.

As the war has dragged on, however, we are seeing fewer embedded reporters staying with units for prolonged periods of time. Reporters who have come to visit our units for a couple days or a week only get a snapshot.

In a week’s time, a unit might get hit with a couple of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) while at the same time training Iraqi police, army and other security forces. The sexy story is the IED damaging a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment, not the hours spent training Iraqi police or the army. I guess my point is, good-news stories take time to develop, and I don’t think there are many reporters who are going to take a year away from their families to spend it with us.

My next point has to do with perception. I mentioned in my last entry how I saw on TV a report about the "Operation Swarmer" air assault led by the 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division. An air assault is an attack using helicopters as the means of transport. Well, what film footage was aired? Footage of a tank and some trucks burning on the side of the road!! Both shots were filmed during Operation Iraqi Freedom I.

Due to a lack of reporters embedded with units and soldiers for the long haul, the news network could only air 3-year-old stock footage. Moreover, the editor who cleared this story overlooked the fact that no air assault unit in the military has tanks BECAUSE THEY ARE TOO HEAVY TO BE CARRIED BY A HELICOPTER. Was this bias? No. However, it may have created a negative perception.

As a force, it took us a while to grow out of the offensive mindset. Our leaders have figured out that we will not kill our way out of this war. Our main focus is training the Iraqi army and police forces and making life better for the people of Iraq. That is the way we are going to be successful here, but it does not make for spectacular film footage.

When stock footage of units attacking and being on the offensive is shown on TV, it creates the perception that we are continually fighting that battle. If reporters were to embed with our units now, they would have footage of young soldiers and NCOs (noncommissioned officers) coming up with creative, nonviolent solutions to help the Iraqi people.

But that is not good television. After all, what would most people rather watch in their homes at night: a group of strangers stabbing each other in the back to win $1 million, or a group of soldiers working together to solve problems so they can all come home alive?

Don’t get me wrong, though. I can’t wait to get home and start watching "Survivor" again.

E-mail Dan at soldiersdiary@gmail.com. Click here to read his bio.