Have a safe and happy Memorial Day!The Military You Don't See
By Frank Schaeffer
Sunday, May 29, 2005; B07
I never served in the military, and before my son unexpectedly volunteered, I was too busy writing novels to give much thought to the men and women who guard us. To me the military was the "other." After my son joined the Marines, however, casualty reports from Afghanistan and Iraq were no longer mere news items but gut-churning family bulletins. And reports about prisoner abuse cut me to the quick. They also made me angry at the media. Sure, this was an emotional, don't-impugn-my-son's-honor reaction, but I wonder if there is also something fundamentally amiss with the way the media report on our military.
If most reporters, editors and publishers are like this writer before his son volunteered, they don't identify with members of our armed forces personally. Most members of our media are drawn from my privileged class. And we, the most privileged Americans, seem to believe that everyone but our children should serve. When members of the elite do volunteer -- as did the Harvard-graduate son of Richard and Doris Kearns Goodwin -- it's a news story in itself.
To be sure, if the children of our top reporters, editorial writers and columnists were proportionately represented in our military, we would still read the stories about prisoner abuse. But I think we might also read more stories like this one, forwarded to me by another Marine's father:
"February 19, 2004 Iraq Dear Mom & Dad, . . . . We were stopped in the desert outside of Fallujah. We had 3 detainees under our control that were captured in the act of [attacking our] Marines. Because we were in the open without any facilities around, the detainees were temporarily being held under the stars.
"Around 3:00 a.m., the wind started blowing hard and a sandstorm hit . . . . the sky opened and the flying sand was joined by a downpour of rain. . . . . In the back of a truck, 4 Marines were trying to stay dry and get some sleep. The lieutenant who was in charge of providing security for the detainees approached this truck and opened up the back hatch. He ordered the Marines out . . . . The Marines asked why and he explained to them that he had to put the detainees in the back of the truck to protect them from the rain and sandstorm.
"Word of this spread quickly and everyone was livid. We couldn't believe that our Marines were being kicked into the sandstorm/rainstorm so these detainees could stay dry. The next day I was still angry and everyone was still talking about what had happened that night. Later in the day, after having time to cool down and think about the situation, I switched from being angry to being proud. . . . I love you and miss you lots.
"Your son, Josh"
(Cpl. Joshua A. Mandel)
As a military parent, why do I read the most positive stories about our troops in a sort of military-family samizdat e-mail underground network and not on Page One? And how many times does the same type of editorial about the same handful of abused prisoners have to be repeated before an inaccurate impression of our military is given?
Maybe reporters and editorial writers think that reporting too often on the many selfless acts our troops undertake will reflect well on an undeserving president who likes to grandstand with our troops in photo ops. But is the truth about the character of our military being accurately, or should I say proportionately, reported? Does the public, which has woefully little personal contact with our military, know that most men and women in our services are not torturers but people like them trying to do the best they can with compassion and honor? Does the public know that acts of kindness are routine and acts of abuse are rare?
I treasure a photograph of my son cradling an Afghan child in his arms while standing outside a school he was protecting from fanatics who wanted to kill the teacher for the "crime" of teaching girls. That picture is far more typical of what my son and his fellow Marines did every day than are the pictures of mistreated prisoners.
My son humbled me. He taught me that our troops are not the "other." My son's brothers and sisters in uniform deserve better than to be mischaracterized if only by omission. Who they are and what they do should be accurately reported in a way that reflects the reality of what our selfless and extraordinary men and women do every day.
Frank Schaeffer is the author of "Faith of Our Sons -- A Father's Wartime Diary."
© 2005 The Washington Post Company
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