Tuesday, August 5, 2008

I'm still not sure how I feel about this.

The guys who were digging my buddy's ditch with on Sunday are all military. And, as conversations tend to do when they are held over a pit full of gross sweaty men doing manual labour, ours turned into a bit of a debate. The be-it-resolved statement was about the military (them) and the media (me). Now, I'm obviously not some embedded reporter working with the troops in Afghanistan. Nor am I a reporter that would gain something from interviewing soldiers about their mission. But the guys were telling me that basically, the army controls who talks to the press and what they say. There are certain soldiers who are allowed to speak to reporters, and they get the army talking points before doing so. And this really bothered me. It didn't seem to bother them - as far as they were concerned, this was the way things ought to be. After all, you don't want some racist jerk talking to the press, and making "towel-head" remarks that would be damaging to the military effort. And yes, if that racist guy were the one talking to reporters, the public perception could easily become a belief that all soldiers were like that individual. So I get it to a degree.

But therein lies the contentious issue. The idea that each individual soldier is just that, an individual. And as such his views do not necessarily reflect those of the army itself. Which, as far as the army guys are concerned, is the reason they should make sure the right guys are saying the right things. And as far as I'm concerned, this is the reason all soldiers should be allowed to speak to the press freely. Because they are individuals. And it would then become the responsibility of the media to report on their comments fairly - making it clear that these individuals were speaking for themselves and not for the army as a whole. And it would then become the responsibility of the public to make that distinction on their own. Because otherwise, there is really no point in talking to actual soldiers. And when you see an interview with a fighting Canadian in Afghanistan, you're not really seeing an interview with an individual, you're seeing an interview with the army's PR people. So why not just go to the PR people for quotes? Why bother with soldiers at all?

The way these guys see it, they're like contract employees. If you're a construction worker building a high rise, you don't tell reporters you think that high rise is going to be useless, and a stupid idea. It's none of your business. You're hired to build it, your actual opinion on it is irrelevant. You're doing a job. Well, again I disagree. And the Afghanistan mission is considerably more important than building, say, a portrait gallery. The way I see it, the only people who really know what's going on in Afghanistan are the soldiers. Does anyone doubt that in Iraq, the soldiers know more about the war than does George Bush?

And we have the same issue here in Canada. Who really knows more about the war - Stephen Harper or a grunt on the ground? I want to know what's happening over there. But I want to know what's really happening. The Conservatives are doing the same thing. They are not allowed to speak unless they spew Harper Talking Points. So when it comes to the war, I have no idea what's really going on. I desperately want to know, but there are few ways to find out for real and filter the real from the sensational. I get Conservative Talking Points in one article, and Army Talking Points in another article, and they're basically the same. What's the truth? Is either the truth? Or even a distorted version? I want to have access to all the information, and filter it for myself. And that means real opinions from real soldiers, commanders, generals and the Afghani people.

But, like I said, I'm not sure how I feel about this. Perhaps they're right. Perhaps public opinion is too easily swayed by the perception of the views of one guy. After all, it was (as they rightly point out) public pressure that resulted in the disbanding of the Airborne unit when it was the actions of only three a**holes that gave the unit it's horrible reputation. And in the end, the fault behind that incident could be traced all the way back to the top - training this team of crazy, gung-ho monster soldiers and then sending them to the middle of nowhere and asking them to babysit. And of course everyone agrees that the torture and murder of a kid in Somalia had to be reported. But what's the right answer here? Is the fear of the capricious nature of public opinion so strong that we feel the public can't be trusted to understand the truth?

But then, as my mother used to say, "if you can't say anything sanctioned by Stephen Harper, don't say anything at all".

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