My Experience with Michael Yon

My Experience with Michael Yon April 24, 2010

Anyone who follows the world of milblogging (military blogging) will know that Michael Yon has been an object of controversy recently, ever since his embed with a Stryker brigade in Afghanistan was cut short at the same time as Michael was accusing General Stanley McChrystal of being incapable of successfully managing this war.  I interviewed him for Patheos on Thursday, on the subject of faith on the front, and I want to describe the process behind the interview because I believe it casts some small measure of light upon the issue.

If you’re already familiar with Michael and familiar with the dispute, skip the next three paragraphs.  If you’re not, here is some background.

When you read a Michael Yon dispatch, you can taste the grains of sand between your teeth.  Michael is a former Green Beret, author of two excellent books, and an exceptional photojournalist who has been reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan ever since 2004.  Michael has not only made remarkable sacrifices to report from the front; he is also a talented photographer and writer.  His Little Girl photograph, of an American soldier cradling a dying Iraqi girl (which can be seen on the second page of the interview), is one of the most iconic images from the Iraq War.  Michael does not merely tell you about the war; he takes you there.  Read his dispatches here.  Many of Michael’s words have also proven prophetic.  He was among the first to say that the war in Iraq was dissolving into a civil war; that the conflict in Afghanistan was growing out of hand again and we were losing that war; and that “the Surge” in Iraq was turning the tide.  Conservatives love Michael because he writes with an obvious respect and compassion for our soldiers, but he hardly parrots the conservative line.

Recently, however, and largely on his Facebook page, Michael began to call out McChrystal’s “gang” for incompetence, and it became clear that Michael was being removed from his embed.  The reason provided by McChrystal’s spokesperson (that Michael needed to be removed to make way for other embedded journalists) does not seem credible.  Other milbloggers have suggested that Michael may have been removed for breaking rules or for being a pain and a hassle.  They are angry that he has made strong accusations against McChrystal and others (including Brigadier General Daniel Menard when a bridge that was critical to logistical supply lines was lost) without providing the evidence for his claims.  In Michael’s defense, he may not always be at liberty to explain the reasons for his concerns.  Shortly after Michael called Menard’s competence into question, for instance, Menard was charged with negligence.)

The other milbloggers believe that Michael has gone off the rails.  That he has become a sort of megalomaniac who makes the story all about him.  That his years of success and years in theater have made him a sort of prima donna.  The most persuasive case, I thought, was made by Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive.  Find a more thorough account here.

Now, I want to tread carefully here, because I have great respect not only for Michael but also for the milbloggers who are frustrated with him and for America’s most distinguished commanding officers in Afghanistan.  I have neither the standing, the competence nor the background information to adjudicate the issue between Michael and General McChrystal.  However, I was scheduling and then performing the interview while all of this was happening, and my experience reflects, I believe, on Michael’s character and state of mind throughout.

I keep a list at all times of the Big Five people I would most like to interview.  These are long shots.  To give you a hint, Tiger Woods (formerly my dorm mate at Stanford) is on the list.  I put Michael on my list because I wanted to tell the story of American servicemen and servicewomen of faith.  I send requests to interview these Big Five on the off chance that I will get a response.  I sent him an email with the full expectation that I would never hear from him.  Let’s be honest here: I am not Edward R. Murrow, and Patheos (while highly respected by those who know it) is not (yet!) on a par with The Wall Street Journal.

Michael not only responded, but bent over backward to make the interview happen.  He had no selfish reason to help me.  He had no faith-based reason to help me, either.  A person who is often interviewed by major national media organizations does not need another interview.  He does not need another chance to get his name “out there.”  While we were trying to arrange the interview, he simply informed me that McChrystal’s crew were ending his embed unexpectedly, and he would be uncertain of his schedule.  We corresponded back and forth about a dozen times over the course of two weeks to find an opening for the interview.  During all of this time, he was being kicked out of his embed and potentially out of Afghanistan (as it happened, he found a way to say, though “outside the wire”)–yet he scarcely mentioned it, and when he did mention it he did so without animus.

Finally the morning came for our interview.  I was nervous.  Would he sound like the kind of guy who eats nails for breakfast, who bench-presses Strykers just to keep in shape?  Would he have no patience with someone, like myself, who doesn’t know all the military lingo?  As it happened, he was just a very nice guy, easy to talk to.  He didn’t rush the interview, apologized for traffic and helicopters in the background, and answered every question thoughtfully and generously.

But what really impressed me was what happened next.  I typed up the interview, edited it, and published it later that same day.  I asked to use his most valuable photo, and he said no problem.   When Michael read the interview, he found a few things that needed fixing.  He sent a few “suggestions” and asked whether they were helpful.  I said they were, and apologized for the mistakes.  Then he started making excuses on my behalf, as though my ego might be bruised.  (I have a cast-iron ego, Mike; no need to worry!).  I will quote this part: “Again, the overall piece is excellent.  We are talking 2% and the phone work can make it difficult.”  He said phone interviews can be like “Class 5 rapids” with some “spills,” and again, later, he said, “Overall is great.  This is just polishing the silver.”

I thought, Who is this guy? I was not bothered to be corrected; I don’t know all the military terms, and phone conversations always need editing because they rarely read well.  In the process of editing, the editor (me) might get some things wrong.  No problem.  But Michael was not only helping me get everything right; he was trying hard to do so in a way that cushioned any possible blow to my ego.  Then, he helped me promote the piece through his social networks, saying, “Timothy Dalrymple has written responsibly and excellently here.”  Wow.

Okay, so, what’s the point?

These are not the actions of a megalomaniac.  These are not the actions of a narcissist.  Michael Yon is just a really nice guy who, even as his own life was thrown into chaos, bent over backwards to help someone he had no selfish reason to help.  I saw no signs of anger or loss of perspective.  I saw an established writer who was almost paternal in trying to help a younger writer get the details right without causing the younger writer to question himself.

It’s entirely possible that Michael lashed out more than he should have at McChrystal and then at the milbloggers who were giving him grief.  That would be a very natural thing to do.  As Michael himself knows, surely even Michael Yon can be wrong.  If he is in the wrong, I hope he will come to acknowledge that.  But if he is right that McChrystal is not only incapable of coordinating this war successfully, but is also seeking to restrict the flow of information about it, then that’s something we need to know ASAP.  It is of vital, vital importance that we have the right person at the helm, and vital that we have a free and informed exchange of information about our military leadership.

If Michael referred to the milblogging community as “hot air,” as one milblogger told me in a letter, then, well, I do not like that.  The milbloggers are doing their best, like Michael is.  Perhaps Michael should have substantiated his claims more, and perhaps his frustration at the dis-embed clouded his judgment.  I don’t know all the circumstances; I can’t really judge.

All I can say is this.  I trust more than Michael’s judgment.  I trust his character.  In my experience, this was not someone who was going down in a blazing inferno of anger and narcissism.  This was not someone who had to be taught a lesson in humility.  He was generous, reasonable, and even-keeled.  It seems to me that everyone needs to step back a little and let the dust settle.  Michael Yon is still with us, and I for one am very glad he’s on our side.

I may be wrong.  But that was my experience with Michael Yon.

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