- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

One of the smarter of the many smart decisions made by the Pentagon during Operation Iraqi Freedom was the decision widely to “embed” journalists with U.S. troops. I think it may cause a sea change in the attitude of journalists toward soldiers.

I am writing now to express my respect for and appreciation of the soldiers in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and the 1st Armored Division, with whom I was embedded, and the soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) with whom I was privileged to spend some time.

Dozens of articles already have been written by formerly embedded reporters, describing how much they thought of the soldiers and Marines. They shared hardships and intense experiences together. The journalists expressed how hard it was to leave their new friends.

Journalism is dominated by people who were Vietnam War protesters, and I suspect it came as a shock to many of the embedded reporters to learn that soldiers and Marines are bright, tough, skilled, brave and humane.

The most touching of these articles, for me, was by a female correspondent for the Arab News, an English-language newspaper in Saudi Arabia. She described how kind the Marines were to her, how solicitious they were for her safety. She concluded that Marines were just like Arabs, and ought to be friends.

During the Vietnam War, many in journalism developed the vile notion that journalists should be neutral when their country is at war. The experiences of the embedded reporters may very well change that. We could see a return to the days of the prototypical “embedded” reporter, Ernie Pyle of World War II. Ernie always wrote what he thought was the truth, and preferred the company of enlisted men to officers. But there was never any question of which side he was on.

As a former Marine and soldier, I expected to like soldiers and Marines. But I was surprised by how much better our Army is today, compared with what it was like when I was a young man.

The biggest change is in the intelligence and the education of the enlisted force. The categories overlap, but are not the same. Two of the brightest young soldiers I met were high-school dropouts, a third had just barely graduated. Their academic performance was more a reflection on the high schools they attended than on themselves. They were bored in school, and goofed off or got into trouble. I expect all three to do well in college when their hitch is up. It’s to the Army’s credit that it provided them with the challenge and the discipline the public schools did not.

The Army provides excellent educational opportunities for its members. It is difficult to find a senior sergeant in the Army today who does not have at least a junior college degree. Many first sergeants and sergeants major have four-year degrees. Officers above the rank of captain often have master’s degrees.

In the unit with which I spent the most time — Tiger Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment — active duty soldiers blended well with reserve soldiers attached to the squadron. All the reservists I encountered had good attitudes, and exhibited skill and professionalism akin to that of the full-time soldiers.

What I saw of women soldiers — who were mostly in these reserve units — made me less wary of the concept than I had been. They performed their jobs well, and cheerfully tolerated living conditions I couldn’t imagine my wife or daughter putting up with.

Race relations in the Army in the 1970s were tense. No more. It would be difficult to find more interracial harmony anywhere in the civilian world than there is in the military units with which I spent time in Iraq.

Contrary to liberal mythology, blacks are somewhat underrepresented in the combat arms. And many of those who remain are authority figures — platoon sergeants and first sergeants.

The college professors and students at prestigious universities who protested the war in Iraq imagine themselves to be America’s best and brightest. They’re not. America’s best are those who are wearing the uniform of their country. We should be as proud of them as we are grateful to them.

Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration and is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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