In Defense of Michael Yon: An Open Letter to Milbloggers

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 11 months ago

My friend Michael Yon has had some difficulties of late.  From his Facebook page, an embed has been halted.  He has also expressed deep reservations about the senior leadership in Afghanistan, weighing in with some fairly hard hitting prose (pieced together from Facebook and NRO):

Today, I do not trust McChrystal anymore than some people trust the New York Times, Obama or Bush. If McChrystal could be trusted, I would go back to my better life. McChrystal is a great killer but this war is above his head. He must be watched … Crazy Monkeys: Senior Public Affairs people often make me think of crazy monkeys. (Like some monkeys I’ve seen in India.) They break into the cockpit and start flipping switches with no idea what the switches do. They keep doing it until something breaks or you beat them back. And just when you think you’ve beaten …them all back, another monkey slips in. (This time by name of Admiral Smith.)

The disembed from McChrytal’s top staff (meaning from McChrystal himself) is a very bad sign. Sends chills that McChrystal himself thinks we are losing the war. McChrystal has a history of covering up. This causes concern that McChrystal might be misleading SecDef and President. Are they getting the facts?

Next time military generals talk about poor press performance in Afghanistan, please remember that McChrystal and crew lacked the dexterity to handle a single, unarmed writer. 100,000 troops — probably that many contractors — and no room for one writer. How can McChrystal handle the Taliban?

To make matters worse, it seems that some prominent folks in the Milblogging community are taking Michael to task for what they consider bad form.  Uncle Jimbo (Jim Hanson at Blackfive) is indignant.

Now he is telling us that Gen. McChrystal is over his head and needs to be watched? I’m sorry but if I have to choose between the eminently qualified and competent McChrystal and Yon, there’s not even a question … I can’t believe he is questioning McChrystal’s character. That’s BS and low.  He has claimed he was told there was no room for him to embed, well that is not what I heard. It appears he was again removed for violating the embed rules. At some point you need to own up to the fact that it’s not the rest of the world…..it’s you. That point is now.

Disclaimer: I have not embedded…ever. I am not going to embed because I don’t want to. I like being in the rear w/ the gear. I have plenty of stamps on my passport, have toured the most craptastic places on the planet, and now don’t deploy anywhere w/o room service. I respect what Michael Yon has done, I just think he is acting like a jackass.

Jim links others in the Milblogging community who are discussing Michael’s most recent words.  Milblogging.com holds that Michael owes us some facts, and Laughing Wolf at Blackfive also weighs in negatively.  I have never been embedded either (although not for lack of trying).  But I sent a son off to war, and I defy anyone to tell me that it’s any less difficult to deploy a son to combat than it is to deploy yourself.  Jim Hanson has a right to weigh in – and so do I.

I have a history of Milblogging that is marked with potholes as well, and have taken on some staff and flag level officers.  Two years ago I took on General Rodriguez for his fanciful claims about the Taliban being in such trouble that they couldn’t and wouldn’t mount a spring offensive in Afghanistan.  I pointed out even before the Taliban offensive began that their singular focus at that time would be the interdiction of logistical lines, and recommended that we engage the Caucasus region for a Northern route into Afghanistan (we are only belatedly coming around to my counsel).  I was right, of course, but you make no friends in the chain of command when you claim that your own analysis is better than that of Army intelligence (and a flag level officer), whether true or not.

Next, recall that I parodied the notion that an internal investigation into Marine deaths in the Kunar Province having to do with denial of artillery support because of rules of engagement would in any way ever hold the purveyor of that ROE – General McChrystal – responsible. Again, one wins no friends with such hard hitting prose.  Better yet.  General Rodriguez and General McChrystal are close friends.  I’m sure that neither one appreciated my comments concerning the other.

I have very specific reasons to believe that my hard hitting style, my critical nature, and my cataloging of the various blunders in both Iraq and Afghanistan have cost me readership and standing within the Milblogging community.  Beyond that, there are the cold relations with high level officers.  Jim Hanson almost immediately received a response from General McChrystal in response to his letter concerning rules of engagement.  I had to send his public affairs officer a letter three different times to get a response to a OPCON question from – you guessed it – the PAO rather than McChrystal.

All of this points to the question of what obligations we have as Milbloggers (beyond operational security and other basic issues).  I can’t speak for all Milbloggers, but I can speak for myself.  I am not trying to turn a discussion about Michael Yon into one about myself, but I am trying to relate.  I have a moral obligation to support the warriors we deploy to do our violence for us (and that includes our warriors in the chain of command).  I have an obligation to tell the truth, and I have done that as best as I know.  I have an obligation to fulfill my commitments: I have told Michael Yon that I would pray for his safety, and I have done that.

I am under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to support any particular personality, any strategy, any tactic, technique or procedure, any set of rules, or any doctrine.  I will do the best I can to hold those in the military and also those who fund them accountable.  This is oftentimes unpleasant, but I will issue no complaints.  I have chosen my path.

Similarly for those who know Michael, he spoke against those who said that Operation Iraqi Freedom was lost, or that it was won; he said that Afghanistan would be problematic even before I did (he saw it first hand); he talked about the job that the British were doing in Basra even when I was lamenting the poor strategy; he has also reported on problems with allies in Afghanistan.  In short, Michael Yon has been an honest broker of information and analysis, whether pleasant or not, whether his analysis agreed with my own or not.  Perhaps I feel a kinship with him even though I have never met him.

Either way, Jim Hanson sets two people in juxtaposition – General McChrystal and Michael Yon, and says that he’ll take McChrystal.  I’m not at all troubled by the dilemma.  I refuse to play.  But I am particularly troubled by the notion, even if faintly present, that I am somehow obligated to march in lock step with the senior officers.  If I am not obligated to march to their beat, then neither is Michael Yon.  He can give account for himself and his own words.  He will take his lumps at times, and if he broke some rule or other (as Hanson charges), then he will suffer whatever consequences there are for that infraction.  But as a journalist there is no reason to expect that he will be any less critical of things than say the New York Times, albeit for different reasons.

Jim Hanson tells us that he believes differently concerning Michael’s recent embed experience (“ … that is not what I heard”).  This is all well and good.  He can believe what he wants.  I generally have a high bar for information I use or purvey on the blog.  I wasn’t there, I don’t know anyone who was, and even if I did know someone who was there, I also know that the story can become muddled in translation.  What happened to Michael is his business, not mine.  As for whether McChrystal “needs to be watched,” I’ll pass on that and let Michael explain his prose.  I have expressed very detailed disagreement with General McChrystal’s ROE and what I see as his micromanagement of the campaign.  I don’t retract or apologize for a single word of my prose.

Michael will continue in my estimation to be the Ernie Pyle of our generation and this incident will pass.  It’s also my estimation that these open letters to Michael are a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  We Milbloggers have better ways to spend our time than cannibalize our own.  The most important thing to come out of the affair is another chance to say what we all know but tend to forget when it comes to the nation and military that we love.  I am under no obligation to shill for the chain of command.  Neither is Michael – and neither are you.

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31 Comments on "In Defense of Michael Yon: An Open Letter to Milbloggers"

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nbpundit
Member

As most of the blowing of smoke are from those who are not embedded or have been, how would anyone know more about the termination than Yon?
Uncle Jimbo knows’ what differently? And if so, why didn’t he specify?

I will continue to read and pray for Mr.Yon.

jj
Member

I totally disagree w/ General McChrystal’s ROE and micromanagement of the campaign as well.

MarkA
Member

I no longer read Jim “Uncle Jimbo” Hanson (or Matthew “Blackfive” Burden for that matter) and have not for quite some time. Hanson particularly diminished his credibility with me multiple times over the past 12 months with his posts at Ace of Spades and Blackfive. He did a similar rant on Ralph Peters a few months ago and I stopped reading him since. I’m sorry but if I have to choose between the eminently qualified and competent Yon and Hanson, there’s not even a question. When I want the straight story on what’s going on, I read Yon & Smith, not Hanson and Burden.

andrewlubin
Member

I think the issue is more of Michael Yon and journalistic accuracy. If a journalist with a good reputation and large following feels compelled to call Gen McChrystal a liar and claim he’s misleading President Obama…then he’d best have some serious proof behind such a statement. Otherwise Yon slides back from being a journalist to a ranting blogger, which does discredit both to himself and to us all.

andrewlubin
Member

@nbpundit: re: Yon’s embed being terminated: the Brits threw him out last Fall for taking and publishing photos they requested (for OpSec reasons) he not take, as well as prematurely publishing names of KIA’s. He not only got himself banned, but they forbade entry to Camp Bastian to all other American journalists (like me). When we embed, there are a variety of rules to which we must sign our agreement – and Yon’s repeatedly and deliberately violated them.

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Jules Crittenden » Yon Flap

[…] being just another guy with a laptop at the kitchen counter in the United States. Herschel Smith at Captain’s Journal rounds it up and adds at some length that lacking more information, he’s inclined to give […]

JewishOdysseus
Member
Great insight from TCJ, as usual! Herschel, I particularly valued your impromptu “credo,” which really cd be an oath for all milbloggers: “I have a moral obligation to support the warriors we deploy to do our violence for us (and that includes our warriors in the chain of command). I have an obligation to tell the truth, and I have done that as best as I know. I have an obligation to fulfill my commitments: I have told Michael Yon that I would pray for his safety, and I have done that. I am under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to support any particular personality, any strategy, any tactic, technique or procedure, any set of rules, or any doctrine. I will do the best I can to hold those in the military and also those who fund them accountable.” It does NOT say “be humble” or “show deference” or “show respect.” These are all great character traits, but let’s be honest, how many ambitious entrepreneurial blogger journalists have them? Rykehaven makes some good fact-based critique on Yon’s misreporting from Basra. Let’s posit the man got it wrong. But it really was not fair to attack him for not reporting Maliki’s capture… Read more »
carol
Member

I met Uncle Jimbo at the milblog conference last year and he was quite scathing about Michael Yon even then.

I met Michael Christmas before last and he talks like he writes. Very entertaining, straight, harsh and intelligent.

IMO Michael singlehandedly changed the narrative of the Iraq war, starting in May 2005. From that point to now, the American press has lost significant circulation and the broadcast news has lost vast numbers of viewers. What Michael did via his blog will be assessed and taught for centuries to come.

It is now “cool” amongst educated, clever teenagers to disparage all mainstream news and biased teachers. Here comes the revolution.

If Michael has deep reservations about this McChrystal person then so do I and so should the powers that be.

Plus – big thank you for deleting that drivel, I didn’t notice the profanity, just thought twas bs and boring.

Warbucks
Member

“Rick: How can you close me up? On what grounds?
“Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
“Croupier: Your winnings, sir.
“Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.
[aloud]
“Captain Renault: Everybody out at once!”

Hey! We are trying to run the perfect war here. Mil-bloggers that operate from Vanity Fair (http://www.vanityfair.com/) morality ….. it does not matter what they argue about as long as they Ping-back my name …. are fated to rise to a greater destiny than humble and meek. A book on the controversy would surely be in order.

But don’t wait too long. The public soon forgets.

Marge, hand me the channel changer…

Wind Rider
Member

I can say I’ve actually met Jimbo, have yet to enjoy Mr. Yon’s company in person – and I’ve gotta take exception with Jimbo’s take on this one. I’ve followed Yon on and off for quite some time, and have found him to be a reliable and honest broker of the good, the bad, and even the personally embarrassing – and not for just others – the incident of the picked up weapon during the firefight in the alley comes to mind. With his critical reporting of the not so glowing and shiny aspects of what’s going on, on the ground, in theater, I’m not surprised he’s probably not on a few folks’ Easter Card list. Unless Jimbo can back this up with something, I’d have to go with Michael’s consistent stream of reportage for the past few months – including the published correspondence he had with the PAO honchos on the matter.

Coin check, Jimbo, you holdin?

Warbucks
Member

“As a general rule, you don’t cross the mob, the IRS or Apple (Computer) without suffering some consequences,” (John Murrell – Good Morning Silicon Valley).

Perhaps we might consider adding to the “don’t cross list”, Commanding Generals? ……. N-a-a-a-a-h!

Better you give out two titles: One status is Embed (restricted access) the other status is “In-Bed” (open access to all areas).

byshaw
Member
As a journalist (and combat veteran) currently embedded with US forces in Afghanistan, I have found that roughly 95% of the troops on the ground in no way believe in their mission, have no confidence that their efforts will bring about lasting change to Afghan security, stability, governance, or a decreased influence of radicalism. In truth, they fight simply to stay alive and want nothing more than to go home. A recent quote: “I joined to defend and fight for the United States, but now I feel like I’ve been tasked out to fight for Afghanistan. Yet the people don’t even care, and make no effort whatsoever to help us help them. They don’t WANT help.” The nature of freedom is that those who are unwilling to fight for it personally will never realize it. As it stands, nothing is more important to Afghans than survival, even at the expense of all self-dignity, nationalism, tribalism, and whatever ideals may at one time surpassed the will to simply “get by.” I have also discovered that if I publicize these findings (that literally 95% of troops don’t believe in their own mission), the Soldiers who I cite will be charged, potentially relieved… Read more »
Bruce
Member

I also gave up on Burden and Hanson long ago. I find the “ultimate moral authority” of these guys solely due to their military experience more than a bit tiresome. Mike Yon is a highly respected journalist whose creds are, in my opinion, above reproach. If Hanson feels – as he implies – that Mike violated some rule .. let him state that rule, and how it was broken. To say “he broke the rules…” and leave it at that is a trick the liberal press has been playing with us for too long. Personally – I have a problem with any senior military official appointed by the Obama administration, and that includes dimbulb Mullen.

Kaf
Member
I know I have absolutely no cred being new. That said, this is my email exchange with the PAO on April 11th. Myself: I support your embed program to rotate in as many voices out there as possible to prevent biases from a narrow perspective from forming. Yon likes to play to his fan base and the fact that he left your email there is evidence of how he ‘plays’ regarding authority. Beneath the veneer of ‘objective’ reporting is a man who resents any line of command/social structure. Hence his attack on your higher ups in his face book comments. His particularly vile contempt of Canadians shows his propaganda reporting wrapped in a thin layer of ‘telling it’ as it is, ie, what he deems as truth shall never, ever, ever, ever, be contradicted. Anyway, hope the case of shooting the messenger isn’t too brutal. Regards, …………………. Response: Thank you for the email. I try to be unbiased and provide an opportunity to every journalist possible. Good news or bad news, the people back home (Canada, U.S., U.K., etc.) deserve to get there information from as many sources we can facilitate. Ironically, there were no higher ups that influenced this,… Read more »
exhelodrvr
Member

Michael Yon has definitely done some great work. However, at times it becomes too much about “him”, and when it does, his work suffers. That seems to be what is happening here.

Axel
Member
In the early years I was a huge fan of Yon’s, even would send a few bucks now and again. When he became famous I noticed a change, was turned off by some of his rants. However, I still read his work, and admire his guts and dedication. And yes, he is making a living by being an embed. So what? He doesn’t bore me w/photos by the pool side like some do. With that said, it seems many are in an uproar over the McChrystal comment. I can see that McChrystal has changed, he isn’t the man that he used to be based solely on reading and tracking him through the media. I am not impressed w/what the man is doing in A-stan. No doubt Washington politics has everything to do w/this. So perhaps Yon is onto something, only time will tell. Certainly any person in the position of power should be watched no matter who they are. Give me Yon over the MSM media or military propaganda any day. What I find disturbing is how the milblog community has attacked this man like vultures on roadkill. I find it appalling, it says a lot about who these people… Read more »
REN
Member

“…you make no friends in the chain of command when you claim that your own analysis is better than that of Army intelligence…”

You seem to be conflating the decisions of the battle space commanders with the analysis and reporting of Army Intelligence. Unless, of course, you meant the lower-case “intelligence” of those who actually do make the battle plans. Please take note the difference and you may keep a few more friends. =Þ

MeTooThen
Member
Disclaimers: I have never been in the military. I have never been in combat. I know nothing of the stress of fighting, killing, or having someone trying to kill me. I have had many years experience treating individuals who have suffered from trauma, including but not limited to quite a few military veterans dating from WWII up to and including those who have recently returned from the current wars in the “sand box.” With that said, and having followed Mr. Yon, on and off, for some time, I believe that there are several likely truths here. 1) Isolation for long periods of time in a combat zone, away from friends, family, lovers or intimates, can prove to be brutalizing and is not healthy psychologically, emotionally, or spiritually, and can lead to a great deal of loss, grief, bitterness, and rage. 2) Such continued isolation and reliance on oneself only for the purpose of ones own mission can lead to further conflict with those around you. Recall, Mr. Yon is working for himself, alongside the military, but he is not there to complete any military mission, only report on it. 3) These two sets of circumstance can prove highly problematic, and… Read more »
OGolly
Member

I am a former Army PAO. I agree wholeheartedly. I follow Michael Yon and wish him well in his efforts. No one should automatically trust a GO. Trust must be earned.

Warbucks
Member

“The lie is different at every level.”…. perhaps one of the deepest truths about world power ever given…. Attribution: anonymous “BlackOps”

I doubt if any of us writing here see the big picture. Nothing is what it seems and almost everything you think is true, is true at the level you see it.

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byshaw
Member

As of today, my photos, videos, and writing have been so closely monitored by the command that I have elected to remove all imagery for fear of jeopardizing the troops on the ground. Commanders are using the images and footage to threaten Article 15s for Soldiers photographed out of uniform, and also threatening to relieve platoon sergeants and first sergeants for allowing such things to happen. Professionally, I have been bound and gagged – that is unless I’m willing to burn an entire troop (or squadron) of Soldiers in the process of telling the US public what’s happening – which would be counterproductive.

My next step will be to file a formal complaint with commanders who use media resources to incriminate their own subordinates. This command, I have determined, is far more concerned with looking pretty than accomplishing their mission. I also think that, somehow, the US public needs to know about it.

byshaw@gmail.com

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The Captain's Journal » Depressing Report from Afghanistan

[…] the comments section in An Open Letter to Milbloggers, journalist Ben Shaw gives us this very depressing perspective from Afghanistan. As a journalist […]

Kaf
Member

byshaw…I’m confused. You say on your facebook note ‘On Afghanistan’ written prior to going there,

>>Despite a heavy international presence and mindboggling sums of money dumped into the country, the likelihood of success is a subject of much international, domestic and dinner table debate. Military commanders are optimistic, but one must wonder if they are only saying as they have been directed to say. The US military, after all, does not practice democracy (i.e. free speech); it only defends it.<<

It seemed like you understood this about the military. Also, you say you are professionally bound and gagged. Seems like the objection to public view is that the physical image associats a specific recognizable unit with soldiers out of uniform, etc. What happened to oral accounts of events? Can your observations of events not be relayed this way – or was the uniform bit integral to the story.

Bottom line: I don't see the gag.

Julianna
Member
Oh Axel. You may think dangergirl is scorned, and that’s a typical male default position, but one could say the same about Yon whose opinion or ‘truth” about McChrystal changed after he was fired from his embed. ( see below for detailed example) I don’t understand how Axel & Herschel and even Jules Crittenden will listen to all of Yon’s ugly truths and give Yon the complete benefit of the doubt when his ugly truths are about General Menard or McChrystal simply because they come from Yon; even as those “truths” have either been proven to be lies, as in the case of Menard, or merely the opinion of a scorned Yon who has once again been fired from his embed. Had those same ugly “truths” about McChrystal come from a NYT Times reporter, particularly one who had just been fired from his embed, would Axel, Hershel, or any of Yon’s loyalists lend them the same veracity? I agree that Blackfive and Jim live in this world of rarefied air, where they believe their shit don’t stink, but so does Yon. I read dangergirl’s comments on B5, and she was unabashedly attacked by Matt & others after she described to… Read more »
byshaw
Member
Recently, I posted an emotionally-driven comment on this blog (see the comments section), making several derogatory claims about military commands and commanders, US foreign policy in Afghanistan, and the merits of the conflict itself. Soon thereafter, these remarks appeared on http://letthemfight.blogspot.com/2010/04/corroborate-and-truth-will-set-you-free.html, without my permission, publicizing them widely. The more I look at my own writing, the more I logically examine every claim I made, the more I realize that my statements are altogether out of line and demand a retraction and apology. Below is that piece: Dear Sirs; Recently, in an attempt to advocate US servicemembers deployed in Afghanistan, I have committed a series of grave errors. Rather than maintaining any sort of journalistic integrity, I chose instead to write based on my own opinions and emotions, and wrongly presented that material as fact. When discussing a command and its supposed shortcomings, it behooves me to confirm every potential accusation, ensure that sources are properly-informed, and where possible interview the person(s) in question. In the case of this recent article, I did no such thing, taking vague conjecture and presenting it as factual. My behavior was both foolish and unprofessional. For my statement that lower commanders are making efforts to… Read more »
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Michael Yon & Blackfive’s Jim Hanson Go At It On the Gordon Liddy Show | ROK Drop

[…] Michael Yon has had an ongoing feud with milblogs in regards to his criticism of General Stanley McChrystal.  The feud has been the hottest with Jim Hanson of Blackfive, which has turned intensely personal between the two.  This whole feud seems to have started when various milblogs wrote open letters to Yon asking to take time off because he appeared to be burned out.  Some dubbed it an intervention which Yon appears to have taken quite personally.  I have found this whole issue to be distasteful because Yon is a grown man and knows when he needs to take a break or not.  I continue to think that Herschel Smith continues to have the best perspective on this issue. […]

dave
Guest

I think it’s funny that Michael Yon was correct about McChrystal and it seems that jumbo or jimbo has never attested to that fact.

McChrystal was an idiot. I knew that from the day that he landed in Afghanistan.

I spent nearly a decade over there. Half of that time as a Senior Mentor to the Afghan National Security Forces.

McChrystal/Tillman was all that anyone needed to say regarding McChrystal. He was a power hungry fool.

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‘Smears’ Turn Milbloggers on Their Frontline Hero | Danger Room | Wired

[…] Yon still has his defenders in the tight-knit community of military bloggers. Smith, for one, likens Yon to legendary World War II journalist Ernie Pyle. […]

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You are currently reading "In Defense of Michael Yon: An Open Letter to Milbloggers", entry #4853 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) General McChrystal,Military Blogging and was published April 19th, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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