The Hollywood movie “Act of Valor” — the nation’s No. 1 box-office attraction, starring real Navy SEALs — has put the spotlight on the U.S. military’s post-Sept. 11, 2001, love affair with the media.
Moviegoers are watching not just an action flick, but a revolution in military-media relations 20 years in the making. Operations that were once a no-go zone for reporters and film crews have emerged from the shadows to be seen in movies, documentaries and old-fashioned newsprint.
The military’s goal is simple: Win the public’s hearts and minds for the men and women fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the war on terrorism.
Full access to troops has become so pervasive that it prompted an 85-year-old former soldier to rise at a Washington conference this month and lecture a four-star admiral: “Get the hell out of the media,” scolded retired Army Lt. Gen. James Vaught, who fought in three wars and commanded special-operations forces.
“American reporters have had unprecedented access and freedom to report exactly what they are seeing,” said Army Col. Steven Boylan, who placed journalists with combat units in the early days of the Iraq War.
“If we don’t tell the story, somebody else will, and they will probably get it wrong,” he said, summing up the military’s thinking about journalism.
The current cause celebre is “Act of Valor,” which rang up in $24.7 million in ticket sales over the weekend, according to studio estimates.
It is not just that the Pentagon helped advise the filmmakers. The film’s uniqueness lies in the fact that for the first time real, active-duty SEALs, who normally use their special skills anonymously, appear as themselves — although no names are used.
“This was a decision taken four years ago as a recruiting effort,” said retired Rear Adm. George Worthington, once the Navy’s top SEAL. “When ‘Top Gun’ came out, the sale of leather jackets went up. Any nerd could buy a leather jacket. I think that’s the same thing that is going to happen here.”
“Act of Valor” is not the armed forces’ first act in the war on terrorism. A sampling:
• The Pentagon allowed journalists Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington to embed with an Army platoon for 15 months as it fought “in the deadliest place on earth,” as their subsequent 2010 documentary, “Restrepo,” called the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
An outpost named for a fallen medic, “Restrepo” presents stark scenes of war and downtime, as close as any filmmakers have gotten to war.
• The National Security Agency, the nation’s global eavesdropper, used to deny it existed.
But last year, it opened its Fort Meade, Md., operations center, archives and labs to a National Geographic film crew. Once-secret analysts and linguists, who listen to and interpret overheard conversations, sat down for on-camera interviews.
• National Geographic also tagged along with Green Berets in Afghanistan. Reporters and cameras captured counterinsurgency troops planning, eating, sleeping and fighting. It’s now on DVD.
• When Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in May, the Obama administration leaked minute-by-minute details, right down to the position of helicopters over the compound, and the equipment and weapons used.
• Retired Army Gen. Stanley M. McChrystal allowed a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine to travel with him and his closest aides from Afghanistan to Europe, from briefing rooms to hotel bars.
In this case, the media strategy backfired: Mr. Obama fired Gen. McChrystal, then the top Afghanistan commander, for indiscreet comments.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, the military has adopted one overriding media strategy: Let reporters get close to combatants, day in day out, through embedding. It was a policy pushed by Torie Clarke, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s public-affairs adviser in 2003, when the Washington press corps pressed for more access.
True, reporters traveled with troops in World War II. And in the biggest conflict before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, a limited number of scribes got to tag along.
There was one big difference: censorship. In 1991, reporters’ copy was moved through layers of censors, from unit level in Saudi Arabia all the way to the Pentagon.
The 2003 embed policy did away with censorship, as long as reporters refrained from writing about future missions, classified information or the identities of casualties before families found out.
Army Maj. T.G. Taylor recently ran the “embeds,” as war journalist are now called, in NATO’s Regional Command East in Afghanistan, placing 250 media types with combatants over one year.
“They had complete access to our troops,” Maj. Taylor said. “Basically, 24/7, they could use anything they got as long as it didn’t violate any ground rules. They get to know that squad or platoon intimately. They know them. They know what their families are like. They know what their personalities are like. It’s an entirely different angle to the coverage of war.”
As a string of positive stories started showing up on TV, the Internet and in print, some liberal columnists reversed course. They said the military was granting too much access, corrupting honest journalists with lots of time with young, brave men and women serving their country.
That sentiment continues today, perhaps best captured by the left-wing publication Mother Jones in a May 2011 article, “Why It Feels So Good to Be Embedded With the U.S. Military.”
The author, Peter Van Buren, served as a State Department diplomat on a reconstruction team in Iraq, observing the press-military relationship.
“What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers?” he wrote. “A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever-more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.”
Senior officers did not worry about secrets being spilled by embeds, Mr. Van Buren wrote: “Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. … Embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.”
The military has worked at this marriage, for years.
In Vietnam, the Pentagon imposed few restrictions on reporters. Afterward, some senior officers blamed the press for losing the war.
Relations soured further in the 1983 Grenada invasion when reporters were kept in the dark. Things did not improve much with Desert Storm and its complicated censorship system.
Then came the cultural change. Senior leaders began thinking it was better to start learning about journalism than to fight it, and to start granting more access. All the military’s graduate schools spent more time on media relations, asking. ‘What do reporters want and how do we give it to them?’
“The senior military coming up have gone out of their way to bring the junior people in contact with the media, and it’s become part of a lifestyle, part of a culture,” said retired Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, who ran the Navy’s public relations shop in the 1990s and now is an executive with General Dynamics.
“It’s an effort to let everybody know who the media are, get them accustomed to dealing with them,” he said. “And you start the process as a lieutenant so you can see the media as real people. They have a job to do. You have a job to do. And you can trust each other. I know for the Navy, they’ve taught people to trust them. And know the limitations. Here’s what you can do. Here’s what you can’t do.”
Col. Boylan, of the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., said: “There was the lull after Vietnam through probably to Desert Storm where it really became an adversarial relationship.”
He plans to continue the cultural change by teaching next semester “Media and the Military: Bridging the Gap.” The class will mingle Army majors, the service’s future leaders, with journalism students at the University of Kansas.
“We’ll go downtown, to Lawrence, middle of the day, and the students, both military and civilian, have to go get a story,” Col. Boylan said.
All this schmoozing was too much for Gen. Vaught when he rose Feb. 8 to challenge Navy Adm. William H. McRaven, a career SEAL who heads U.S. Special Operations Command and oversaw the bin Laden raid.
“One of these days, if you keep publishing how you do this, the other guy is going to be there ready for you,” Gen. Vaught said. “You’re going to fly in, and he’s going to shoot down every damn helicopter and kill every one of your SEALs. Watch it happen. Mark my words. Get the hell out of the media.”
‘Can’t get away from it’
Adm. McRaven responded by telling the story of why he became a SEAL. It stemmed in part from seeing John Wayne in the 1968’s “The Green Berets.”
The admiral saw a silver lining in such intense media scrutiny.
“We are in an environment today where we can’t get away from it. It is not something we actively pursue,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, with the social media being what it is today with the press and the 24-hour news cycle, it is very difficult to get away from it.
“But not only does the media focus on our successes. We have had a few failures. And I think having those failures exposed in the media also kind of helps focus our attention, helps us do a better job,” he said.
“So sometimes the criticism, the critique, the spotlight on us actually makes us better. But I take your point, sir. We don’t ever want to get to the point where our sensitive tactics, techniques and procedures are open for everybody to take a look at so next time we come in on a target we’re exposed,” Adm. McRaven said.
The SEAL community closely edited “Act of Valor” to make sure their tactics, techniques and procedures — “TTPs,” as they are known — were not compromised.
Adm. Worthington, the former top SEAL, said he thinks “Act of Valor” is the last of its kind.
“It will never happen again,” he said. “I just think they’ve done it once, and that’s it. Been there, done that and move on.
“I think if anything we’ll see a recession — a tightening of the wagons just because they don’t want it to go much further than they’ve gone now.”