Michael Yon is one of the most famous combat journalists in the country, writing as he does through his blog, Michael Yon Online Magazine (www.michaelyon-online.com). Yon has earned enormous credibility as an embedded reporter in Iraq, formerly served in the US Special Forces, and is respected for his independence and well-informed commentary. The Review was lucky enough to catch up with him online while he was in Iraq on October 5.
**1. How long have you been in/how many times have you reported from Iraq, and how has the situation changed over the years? What do you think Iraq will look like when US troops begin the much anticipated withdrawal? **
Since December 2004, I’ve spent about 1.5 years with American and British combat troops. Currently I am with the British again. Early this morning, just before sunrise, we returned from a nearly 2-week mission out in the desert just next to the Iranian border. To see what is going on here, it is critical to stick it out for long periods. The situation has changed remarkably since late 2004. The Iraqi Army and Police have made tremendous progress. There is still far to go, but the progress has been better than is widely reported. In early 2005, I used to take cover when the Iraqi police or Army would approach us. They often would fire at anything due to lack of training and fear, but now they are becoming a true force. I have been in combat with them many times, and the great improvement is evident. But a journalist who does not spend great amounts of time on the ground would never have the frame of reference to see this, and since there are practically none who will spend more than a few months, we simply do not see this reported.
**2. We receive mixed reports on the surge: Basra is falling apart, al-Anbar is a major success, sectarian killings are down, Iraqis report the surge hasn’t made them safer, al Qaeda is on the run, etc. From your perspective, how are things going? **
Basra is not falling apart. I am in Basra today and have been down here in al Basra province for nearly two weeks. I spent about a month with the British earlier this year, and, true, there was a great deal of fighting. But in the last about seven weeks, fighting has abated to nearly nothing. There were no combat deaths for British soldiers in Iraq in September. Al Anbar has been nothing short of astounding. When I was there earlier this year, it was nothing but a big gun battle. But when I spent a month in Anbar back on roughly May, I saw zero combat for the entire month. The turn-around has been phenomenal. There is still much work to do in Diyala but I have seen great progress there, and up in Nineveh, I’ll be back there soon, again, the progress has been obvious. Mosul is still a shambles and very dangerous, but the Iraqi Army and Police are taking the reins. We have only a single battalion (about 700 troops) there now, whereas in 2005, when I spent five months in Mosul, we had about 9,000 American soldiers and they were fighting hard. Iraqi forces have taken the lead and the people are rejecting al Qaeda. At the current rate, al Qaeda will become an endangered species in Iraq. Most Iraqis are sick of them.
3. Morale and outlook: is there a difference in attitude toward the war between officers, NCOs, and enlisted troops?
Morale among British and American troops remains high. Insofar as the American Army, however, our soldiers are becoming worn-out from the long deployments. Some soldiers are on their fourth combat tour, and this is greatly affecting their family lives and general well-being. Counterinsurgency is tougher and more demanding than it looks. The stress can be severe and it wears on people. That said, the morale does remain good, but I believe we could start seeing serious cracks if we keep pushing our Army in particular. The morale of Marines seems to remain high. Though the Marines have fought very hard, their deployments are shorter and this is important. Morale among British troops also remains high. The only folks who concern me are the American Army and that is simply because we are pushing our soldiers year after year. Army morale still remains good for now, if precarious; Marine morale seems high, and British morale is also high. Morale among some of our special operations forces actually seems lower than that of regular soldiers.
4. What’s your perception of the accuracy of mainstream media reports on the war, in particular those from the New York Times?
I’ve found the Los Angeles Times can be questionable at times, though there are some writers there who do good jobs. As for New York Times, during those occasions when journalists from the Times have covered areas that I am familiar with, they do tend to be accurate as a general rule. Since the Jayson Blair scandal, however, I personally lost a great deal of respect for the New York Times. Top editors at the Times allowed a known-fraud to deceive millions of readers over a long period of time. This indicates something very wrong within the organization, and I doubt that the departure of a handful of people cured that cancer. That fraud came from the top, it was allowed to become systemic. I remain skeptical about the New York Times.
**5. How do you respond to those who claim that because reporters like you are embedded they lose objectivity? Do the troops think the media is on their side anymore, or are journalists treated with suspicion/scorn? **
I never claimed complete objectivity and so therefore will not try to defend it. I am first and foremost an American. I was a soldier years ago. If I were reporting on a war between the Hutus and the Tutsis I could be, perhaps, completely objective because I never heard of either until they started hacking at one another, but when US forces are involved, naturally I will be biased in favor of our own. It’s more important to recognize this so that readers can take it into account than to pretend objectivity, which we often seem to see, for instance, in the Los Angeles Times. I can attain honesty while reporting the war in Iraq, but I cannot attain objectivity. It is my subjective opinion that Saddam Hussein was a mass murderer, and that the al Qaeda franchise who moved in here subsequent our ill-conceived (in my opinion) invasion are murderous thugs. These are subjective opinions, just as the fact that in my subjective opinion the attacks on 9/11 were unjustified acts of mass-murder. I’ve met terrorists who thought those attacks were justified, but that was just their opinions vs. my own. I’ve seen the heads of children who were decapitated by terrorists and in my subjective opinion, I thought that cutting off those children’s heads was wrong. Clearly, someone else had another opinion and cut off their heads. I do not pretend to be objective. I believe there are evil men in this world, and it takes men who have strong opinions to stand up to them. I have strong opinions about men who commit mass murder, and I have strong opinions about disciplined Armies, such as our own, and the British, and the Australians, who enter the arena with the demons. I am very suspicious of any journalist who claims to be reporting on this war objectively. Firstly, I do not believe them. Secondly, I find them weak and disingenuous for not stating clearly where they are coming from. These journalists are not worth listening to. They have no spine for truth. That is my opinion. It is not objective.