Friday 25 September 2009

The naming of names

Michael Yon is back with an excoriating condemnation of the MoD publicity machine in Helmand, lifting the lid on a little-discussed but vitally important aspect of the conduct of the war there.

Speaking with a defence correspondent this morning about it, he could not conceal his delight that Yon had done the deed, with a long account of the behaviour of one particular officer running "Media Ops" in Camp Bastion.

Yon states the behaviour of this officer has been "particularly problematic" – but fights shy of naming him, "so as not to tar and feather someone for his entire life when he still has a chance to change his behaviour".

Others, who have had the misfortune to suffer his ministrations are less optimistic – or charitable, and have no difficulty in recognising Major Ric Cole (pictured) as the man who, single-handedly, seems intent on destroying the reputation of the British Army.

Yon readily acknowledges that many soldiers in the British Media Ops are true professionals who strive constantly to improve at their tasks and work very well with correspondents. Their professionalism and understanding of the larger mission - ultimate victory - provide an invaluable service to the war effort. But, he says, there are a few who should not be in uniform and it takes only one roach leg to spoil a perfect soup. And that "roach" is Major Ric Cole.

Yon recounts how the Major and he were driving in Camp Bastion around midday when it was very hot. A British soldier ran by wearing a rucksack. He was drenched in sweat under the blazing, dusty desert. Yon smiled because it was great to see so many soldiers who work and train hard.

Yet the Major cut fun at the soldier, saying he was dumb to be running in that heat. Writes Yon, "I nearly growled at the Major, but instead asked if he ever goes into combat. The answer was no. And, in fact, the Major does not leave the safety of Camp Bastion." He continues:

That a military officer would share a foul word about a combat soldier who was prepping for battle was offensive. Especially an officer who lives in an air-conditioned tent with a refrigerator stocked with chilled soft drinks. Just outside his tent are nice hot and cold showers. Five minutes away is a little Pizza Hut trailer, a coffee shop, stores, and a cookhouse.

This very Major had earned a foul reputation among his own kind for spending too much time on his Facebook page. I personally saw him being gratuitously rude to correspondents. Some correspondents - all were British - complained to me that when they wanted to interview senior British officers, they were told by this Major to submit written questions. The Major said they would receive videotaped answers that they could edit as if they were talking with the interviewee.
This behaviour is not only gratuitous, it is dangerously harmful. Yon rightly states that it is essential to underscore the importance of the "Media Ops" in the war. When Media Ops fails to help correspondents report from the front, the public misses necessary information to make informed decisions about the war.

But if Cole is the "roach" leg, the king roach is the boss of Media Ops in Afghanistan, Lt-Col. Richardson. Says Yon, Richardson is doing more damage to the war effort than the Taliban media machine. By perpetrating falsehoods that undermine our combat capacity, Richardson has helped the enemy. He thus writes:

Some of the smokescreens are less important but they are demonstrative of the pattern: On 20 August a, CH-47 helicopter was shot down by a Taleban RPG during a British Special Forces mission. Richardson reported that the aircraft landed due to an engine fire. Some hours later, while I was on a mission nearby, the Taleban were singing over the radios about shooting it down. I heard the rumble when the helicopter was destroyed by airstrikes. The Taleban knew they hit the helicopter. So who is Richardson lying to? Not the enemy … unless the enemy is the British public.
We have met some of the efforts of Lt-Col Richardson before – defending Panther's Claw and the Viking, always touting the approved line.

Quite how serious this is Yon himself points out. The British people are demanding truth and they deserve accountability. They aren't getting it from Camp Bastion, he writes. Given the importance of the home front, it is impossible to stress how important it is that we are able to judge what is going on out in Helmand. For a long time, we have known that we are not being told the full story – or even part of it. For its contribution to that failure, "Media Ops" – with Major Cole and Lt-Col Richardson in particular - is losing us the war.