Military illiteracy

Posted: Apr 20, 2001 12:00 AM
Washington, D.C. -- The April 1 collision between a People's Liberation Air Force F-8 fighter and a U.S. Navy EP-3 over the South China Sea has revealed a striking military weakness. As the 11-day standoff over the fate of 24 of our military personnel detained by the communist Chinese unfolded, the masters of the media went into high gear to explain to the American people what was going on. The potentates of the press did an adequate job of reporting on the political dynamic in our nation's capital; on the diplomatic exchanges between Beijing and Washington; and on the anxieties of loved ones waiting at home. But when it came to reporting on the military aspects of the incident, they failed miserably. Strangely enough, almost no one noticed -- in large part because the American media and the American people suffer from the same malady: military illiteracy. Some examples: From the day of the collision onward, nearly every U.S. media outlet referred repeatedly to the damaged U.S. aircraft -- a 45-year old, four-engine turbo-prop -- as a "spy-plane." It's not. A "spy plane" (the U-2 or SR-71, for example) is designed to over-fly an adversary's territory. The sturdy old EP-3 however, is designated as a "reconnaissance and surveillance" aircraft, and it conducts its mission of collecting electronic emissions by flying in international airspace or over "friendly territory." The difference between "surveillance aircraft" and "spy plane" is not a simple matter of semantics -- it is an important distinction that affords the EP-3 and its crew protections in international law. Not unexpectedly, the use of the term "spy plane" in the U.S. media was immediately picked up by the international press and Communist China's propaganda machine. A less egregious example of military illiteracy is evident in listening to what the media call those who serve in the Armed forces. At various times during the 11 days our 24 military personnel were detained, network newsreaders referred to them as "soldiers" or "troops," and occasionally as "intelligence specialists." The cable "news hounds" made similar errors last October, when terrorists attacked the USS Cole in Yemen and the masters of the media repeatedly described the sailors killed and wounded aboard the vessel as "soldiers." It is tempting to ascribe these inaccuracies to media malevolence, an undercurrent of antipathy toward the U.S. military. And members of the armed forces can perhaps be forgiven their paranoia when they are treated to "investigative reports" like CNN's "Tailwind" broadcast, in which it was falsely alleged that U.S. forces employed Sarin nerve gas against U.S. "defectors" in Vietnam. But in fact, it appears that most of the factual errors in today's media coverage of our military stem less from malice than from ignorance. And that's not just a media problem -- it's becoming a national predicament. How is it that so many know so little about military life today that they cannot distinguish between a "soldier" and a "sailor"? The answer lies in part with the "success" of the "all volunteer force" -- now in its 26th year. Once we abandoned selective service -- the draft -- military recruiters were forced to appeal to an increasingly narrow cross-section of young Americans to fill the ranks. Gone is the challenge of patriotism and service that had motivated young men from all walks of life to join the military. Douglas MacArthur's "Duty, honor, County" was replaced with a bald bounty system. Sheer greed -- cold hard cash -- became the Pentagon's answer to enlisting those with critical skills essential to today's increasingly complex and technology-based military. In 1963, when my Naval Academy classmates and I first swore to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic ..." it was the commander in chief who administered the oath. Many have found fault with John Kennedy since that day, but not in his appeal that we should "ask not what our country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." That sentiment is heard no longer. And the effect is seen not just in military recruiting shortfalls, but throughout our society. General James L. Jones, commandant of the Marine Corps, recently noted that, "The average citizen, even the average congressman, neither knows nor cares about national security ..." and that "congressmen and senators no longer vie for seats on the House or Senate Armed Services Committees." He's right. Fewer than one in 10 new recruits even knows a military veteran, and only four out of 100 Americans personally know someone in uniform. It should be instructive that the military hero of the moment, Navy Lt. Shane Osborn, who saved the lives of his EP-3 crew by successfully piloting his badly damaged aircraft to a safe landing, says that he was motivated to become a flyer by his high school football coach, an Air Force veteran. But Osborn's experience is increasingly rare. Today, many educators, especially those who came of age during the "Vietnam era," remain hostile to military service and even go so far as to deny military recruiters access to high schools. George Orwell wrote, "We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." If we expect to remain safe in our beds, we would do well to get smart about our armed forces.