Recently, journalist George Stanley embedded with the Army Reserve’s 826th Ordnance Company in Afghanistan, a unit that includes his soldier son. His series about the experience has garnered both praise and criticism. Stanley tells the story of a journalist father looking for answers in Afghanistan.
BOB GARFIELD: Afghanistan will soon be this nation’s longest war. Until recently it was also a largely forgotten war, and with no state enemy it is also an extremely complicated war for strategists, members of the military, civilians and not least journalists, certainly not least George Stanley, managing editor of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Stanley recently embedded with the Army Reserve’s 826th Ordinance Company, a unit that includes his soldier son. He wrote a four-part series about his time in Afghanistan, for which he’s received much praise and some scathing criticism. Stanley joins us now. George, welcome to the show.
GEORGE STANLEY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: In a moment I'm going to ask you all sorts of argumentative questions about conflict of interest and so forth, but first I want to ask you what aspects of the story of the war were you able to get through the prism of your son’s experience that you otherwise never would have had access to?
GEORGE STANLEY: I guess it was the questions I wanted answers to, which weren't necessarily the same questions my son might have. They weren't all your traditional journalism questions either. How long are we going to be sending our soldiers overseas? What are we trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and Iraq, and don't we need to know what the job is that they're supposed to be doing? So those were some of the questions I was trying to get answers to. They were questions that related to having a family member in the military and wanting this thing to come to an end someday.
BOB GARFIELD: Did your son tell you anything that you could not report, you know, apart from operational security issues, that you felt that because of your relationship with him were just sort of out of bounds?
GEORGE STANLEY: No. One thing that I found fascinating was it seemed to me that every soldier from private to whatever rank knew exactly what could and couldn't be photographed wherever I was. You know, you can't take pictures of the flight line. And I said, you don't think the Taliban can see the flight line from the mountains over there? [LAUGHS] I don't understand what the rules are for, but they all knew what the rules were, what you could and couldn't take pictures of, stuff like that.
BOB GARFIELD: You had the opportunity to do something that essentially no other soldier’s parent is ever given, which is to see firsthand what your son is enduring, to see the risks, to see the mission. Are you now burdened with knowledge that you kind of wish you didn't have?
GEORGE STANLEY: [SIGHS] No, I'm not. [PAUSE] No, because, you know, one of the things that struck me, and this is something that I did try to get at least a feeling for this into the stories, and that’s that there’s a lot of normalcy in Afghanistan. You know, the violence is there, of course, but for the most part, 90 percent of the time and in 90 percent of the places, people are going on living their lives. Shepherds are walking across hills with their kids and their sheep. Kids are playing soccer, and most people aren't combatants. And most of the troops are not in harm’s way the vast majority of the time.
BOB GARFIELD: So, let me tell you what I really loved about your pieces. There were significant details that had somehow eluded me in the eight-plus years of reading about the battle on the ground there, the configuration of Bagram Air Force Base and how rinky-dink it is and how temporary it looks almost a decade into the war; how packed in the troops are in their quarters and, you know, how there’s no basketball court [LAUGHS] and -
GEORGE STANLEY: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: And I also liked the questions you posed. But I have to ask you, isn't your relationship with the son and his comrades such that it kind of makes it impossible for you to establish any kind of critical distance in answering the questions you sought to answer?
GEORGE STANLEY: I think I went at it like any other parent would. Probably the strongest responses I've gotten to the stories have been from other family members of the troops who say, you know, these are the same questions we are trying to get answers to, because even though the troops themselves are committed and gung-ho and volunteers, their families didn't necessarily volunteer for this. And many, many of the troops are not from military families, traditional military families. Many are, of course, but the Reservists and Guardsmen, like my son, many of them come from families that don't have strong military backgrounds. And so, the families aren't necessarily as committed to this as the soldiers themselves and the Marines are.
BOB GARFIELD: I guess what I'm asking you fundamentally is this. Does your bond with your son, your love with your son, your sympathy for your son, prejudice you in reporting what you've seen, and then does it, by extension, as you so poignantly describe his experience, does it prejudice your readers in a way that should make me uneasy?
GEORGE STANLEY: You know, the thing is that when my editor asked me to consider this assignment, I said right along, well, I'm the father of a soldier. I could not possibly go there as an objective reporter in any way, and I will be stating that right up front, right off the bat, and that’s the way this story is. And because of the way we laid it out, I really think that readers - that they know how to weigh all that stuff and that they know how that would affect them.
BOB GARFIELD: What did your son say about your series?
GEORGE STANLEY: Well, you know, it’s – he told me he liked it. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Do you believe him? I told my daughter I liked the socks I got for Christmas, but I, I got to tell you, I was lying.
GEORGE STANLEY: She doesn't listen to your show, though, right?
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Not very often.
GEORGE STANLEY: Yeah, well there’s always that. I do think he’s uncomfortable. He’s uncomfortable even talking about his own service. They all are, almost.
BOB GARFIELD: George, thank you so much.
GEORGE STANLEY: Bob, thank you. I appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD: George Stanley is vice-president and managing editor of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. We'll link to his four-part series on being embedded with his son’s unit in Afghanistan on our site, Onthemedia.org.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver and Alex Goldman, and edited this week by our senior producer, Katya Rogers. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
John Keefe is our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Bob Garfield.