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[OP-ED] The New York Times Announces Section: “At War” to be Shuttered

[OP-ED] The New York Times Announces Section: “At War” to be Shuttered

Recently, The New York Times announced that “At War”, its section devoted to covering a breadth of wartime perspectives around the world, would be shuttered. The editors of At War were reassigned to cover the presidential election and then will move into other permanent positions sometime afterward.

Not only is At War’s shuttering a testimony to the all-consuming news cycle of the election, and its seemingly endless drama, but it threatens nuanced and accurate coverage of the country’s armed forces.

Right now there are three reputable outlets devoted to military coverage. “Military Times”, “Task & Purpose” and  “Stars and Stripes” target an audience of service members and their families.  “Stars and Stripes” have stared into the abyss of cancellation itself;  President Trump intended to defund it but then reversed his decision earlier this year.  The New York Times magazine’s section is unique in that it was dedicated to military coverage but was embedded in a mainstream media outlet.

In the words of one of At War’s editors, “there are fewer and fewer spaces that exist to examine the experiences of war and the toll they’ve taken on both Americans and the citizens of other nations for whom the cost of recent conflicts is almost insurmountable, yet too often forgotten”.

Now there’s one less, which means the media needs to adapt to help bridge what we call the “civil-military divide”, the gap between American civilians and service members/veterans.

A supermajority of US residents knows nothing about the system that’s in place to protect them so naturally a chasm between those who “serve” and experience war, and those who don’t have developed.  Less than 1% of Americans are on active duty. Less than 8% have ever served at all, and most of those veterans are much older than the TikTok generation, having served in Korea and Vietnam. The divide forges — as all divides do — disunity and confusion.

A vignette from the Obama administration illustrates this. When debating with then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wanted to deploy more troops to Afghanistan, a squabble developed between Gates and his Commander in Chief. Obama didn’t understand that the number of troops requested was combat troops only; another 5000 “enablers” as they’re called would be needed for the mission. Obama dismissed the distinction as superfluous, saying Congress and the public wouldn’t care.

The distinction, of course, is the difference between a successful mission and an inadequate one.

Despite this divide — or maybe even because of it — eight of ten American adults trust the military to act in the country’s best interests. That faith isn’t unfounded. It’s rooted in the fact that servicemembers are always on one side, America’s side.

Most Americans don’t understand that war’s physical and psychic violence, is an extension of our politics, and the decisions made by civilian elected officials- on both the left and the right.

That’s why the military has made remarkable efforts to tailor itself to a 21st-century population. Just last week, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper lent assistance to efforts to rename military bases named after Confederate fighters. DOD leaders have worked hard to address racism, sexism, mental health, and violence against women.

But they have a ways to go. Practices around meaningful, preventative mental health measures, recruitment and retention, and recognizing the valor of heroes of color could use some attention. And would likely get it if the public understood what was happening.

Contributing to the divide, the public gets their information about the military from people who know little about it.  Only about 2% of media workers have military experience, according to the advocacy group Military Veterans In Journalism, which used Census data to discern how many vets are delivering news, bringing  “perspective, nuanced understanding and on-the-ground experience… that ultimately benefits newsrooms and news consumers.”

Getting more veterans to segue into journalism careers after serving will lessen the civil-military divide — and ultimately cause the public to hold the armed forces to better account.

Sometimes the Department of Defense has misgivings about the media in general. According to Army Major General Tony Cucolo, some journalists who’ve been granted unprecedented access, have “cherry-picked” the information that ends up in the resulting story.  A journalist who’s served may prioritize certain data in a different way — a way that keeps communication officers open to working with them more often.

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From the conniving nature of surprise, military homecoming stories to shoddy coverage of the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War led the public to think it was a failure when it was a victory.  The problem is that these shining examples of sub-optimal military coverage can’t be connected with a black Sharpie with an exact death count of servicemen and women. The effect of flawed reporting is subtle and cumulative.

To say that military media coverage isn’t as important as other news ignores the cycle of how the public and the military work together. Life-and-death policy decisions are made by civilians, not military personnel. Those civilians are elected by the public. While national defense is usually only part of a politician’s platform, educated voters make educated legislators.  Adding more veterans to newsrooms and mastheads has the ability to avoid — overtime — a poor strategy that gets troops killed.

Getting more veterans into journalism shouldn’t be that hard. Because of the GI bill, journalistic education is within reach for many.

Of course, there may be little room for them. The number of journalism jobs is shrinking and there’s not much space for the veteran reporter. We’re not talking about the country’s rich history of war correspondents, the Ernie Pyles, and the Ernest Hemingways embedded with troops. Because of their closeness to their stories, their reports were often biased.  I’m referring to stateside beat reporters and columnists working on investigative projects who have a degree of separation from their subjects that’s offset by their lived experience.

As necessary as a veteran reporter or columnist may be, no one’s looking for one. Believe me, as a former active-duty Marine turned freelancer, I would know.

The Military Times sports a headline this November: One Day Is Not Enough. They’re probably right. Instead of commemorating and honoring veterans on one day every year, we can salute them by letting them tell the stories of the military and adding them to the roster of reporters and pundits who explain our world to us.

Kelsey Baker is a former Marine and a freelance opinion writer.

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