Monday, March 26, 2007

Heisenberg at War

[posted by Callimachus]

In reference to the Michael Yon piece I cited below, there have been several lively and thoughtful discussions on his situation, which, as I understand it, goes like this:

A couple years back while Yon was embedded in Iraq, the unit he was shadowing got into a hellacious street ambush battle with insurgents. At least one American was down, others were fighting for their lives, and Yon, who has considerable military background himself, picked up a rifle and briefly joined the fight. He wrote about this in a much-read column titled, I think, "Gates of Fire."

Now, apparently, at least one U.S. general is trying to drive him out of his latest embed position, and apparently the reason, or pretext, or part of it, for that effort is that joining that battle to help his fellow Americans (and then publicizing it) violated embed rules and perhaps the rules of war generally.

Discussions of these questions on sites as varied as this and this have flowed in similar channels. You don't often see that. The core issues, however, seem to defy the usual partisan pigeonholing. Except that, of course, It's All Bush's Fault (tm).

As too often happens, these discussions take place on the vast thin ice of the eternal present tense. I used to think only journalists had that flaw. Apparently the New Media is as bad as the old. Did other reporters in other wars ever find themselves in such situations? Well, the modern war correspondent seems to have been born during the Crimean War, so that gives you more than 150 years worth of experiences to root through to tell you if Yon's situation is unusual or not, and what other people have thought about it.

Here's one. The novelist Ward Just, describing a patrol in Vietnam that ran into a similar kind of Hell:

So, in my own case, a captain said to me, "You're gonna need this," and he gave me this .45 caliber pistol. Well, I'm a hunter. I used to hunt as a child with my father. I'd known about weapons. I didn't know anything about a .45. And the idea of all of a sudden picking up this thing — it's a huge gun, you know — and lying on the floor of the forest, waiting for some helmeted head to come up five or six feet away from me — I wanted to disappear. Because I knew that in terms of the army, I was combat-ineffective. I hadn't been trained to do anything like this. But I was goddamned if I was going to get in their way, either, meaning the Americans. So, thank God, no head appeared, so I didn't have to shoot him, or try to shoot him. And in due course, we were rescued by the medivacs [evacuation helicopters].

I've thought a lot about that. It's essential for things of that kind to be described for people at home, and to be decribed as thoroughly and completely as you can do it. They have a right to know that. But if I hadn't been along, would there have been another infantryman along? And if there had been another infantryman along, maybe things wouldn't have gone quite so badly — although I doubt it, to tell you the truth. But as a supernumerary on one of these missions, you really can't help but wonder if your presence somehow changes the action, and not in a favorable way, sort of like the Heisenberg Principle. Yet it must be done. It can't not be done. So you go ahead and do it, and then sometimes you think about it a little bit afterwards.

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