On Friday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates broke the quiet of the imminent holiday weekend with an order requiring all contact between Defense Department personnel and the media to be approved in advance through a small, understaffed central Pentagon office. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to the preemptive resignation (aka firing) of General Stanley McChrystal, whose loose-lipped interview with Rolling Stone sunk the battleship of McChrystal’s career.
As I write these words, on the heels of the 4th of July weekend, I’m not exactly feeling the mirth of independence that our Founding Fathers bequeathed. What I’m feeling instead is a sense of fear. I’m afraid that my rights as a voting citizen are being eroded by the military’s new Orwellian maxim: When in doubt, obfuscate! But the Army is also afraid that it has lost control of the war message. And as President George W. Bush’s Press Secretary Scott McClellan explained in his memoir, “selling the war to the American people” can sometimes seem paramount to those in Washington.
Secretary Gates implies that the Army has a problem with controlling its image. It reminds me of 2007, when the American Academy of Diplomacy asked in their annual essay competition, “What does America need to do to correct its image problem abroad?” America didn’t have an “image problem” in 2007, it had a substantive problem with its bad international behavior. And now in 2010, Rolling Stone discovered that we’ve been graced by the presence of a revanchist Rambo who has fallen flat on his face in the multinational leadership role we’ve entrusted to his talents. The Army Times reported that Assistant Defense Secretary Douglas Wilson said, “We were not happy with the content [of the Rolling Stone article], and we were not happy that we didn’t know about it.” While nobody likes to be blindsided, Gates’ new lockdown on press engagements reflects a serious problem with the DoD’s reaction to the administration’s concerns. The DoD said nothing about the article’s content, but focused instead on the process that permitted the odious truth to come to light.
By attacking the process that allows free information to flow, the Defense Department is stating that a vapid facade of unity is more desirable than the brutal truth. I could understand if Private Timmy (i.e., the new guy) were expected to toe the party line, but McChrystal was a seasoned General in an influential diplomatic role; knowing the truth about his opinions is more valuable to our democracy than forcing him to be a good soldier and keep his mouth shut. In this case, McChrystal's opinions should have been crystal clear from the beginning because they detracted from his ability to do this diplomatic job. So is this snafu an image problem, or is the real problem the reality behind the curtain—a curtain that needed to be pulled back?
The media in America will never have real-time access to the classified information that sometimes governs our leaders’ decisions in war. I’m fine with that. It is understandable that some information must be kept from the public eye for a time, in order to preserve the safety of our troops in harm’s way. But it is not acceptable to erect barriers between the military and the public simply for the sake of preventing embarrassment or creating a false impression of unity. Soldiers are citizens, too, and their opinions matter. Whether we’re talking about McNamara’s candor in the Pentagon Papers or the unfiltered opinion of a general who comes off as a bull in a china shop, the American people are entitled to hear the voices of those who are acting in our common defense.
This new order by Secretary Gates will have a sedative effect on the vitality of American democracy. By restricting the dialogue between the media and the military during this dull roar of two wars, Secretary Gates has limited our access to the knowledge that allows us to exercise our basic democratic rights. The Defense Department should rescind this order and instead focus its efforts upon what we’re paying them for—winning these wars instead of selling them.
Christopher Brownfield is a former nuclear submarine officer, an Iraq veteran, and a visiting scholar on nuclear policy at Columbia University. He is the author of My Nuclear Family, to be published by Alfred A. Knopf in September.