In a previous post titled, “Bumming a Ride with the Occupation Parade: A Look at Human Terrain Teams in Afghanistan,” I wrote about a new piece of “military travel writing,” specifically that of Robert Young Pelton and his article in the Men’s Journal titled, “Afghanistan: The New War for Hearts and Minds” (21 January 2009). I was not effusive in my praise of the article, but I was struck by some memorable images from a writer who, unlike myself, had actually been to Afghanistan and had traveled with a Human Terrain Team. What was also striking is that it was not the usual kind of American flag-waving piece (I don’t think that Pelton being a Canadian is necessarily the reason for this), it impressed me as written from a detached perspective of someone who was not eager to reproduce official truths, and if something was embarrassing to his hosts, he would print it without feeling he had to pay dues to wrongdoers. I did not even say this much in that post, but that it resembled other writing, but with less ambiguity and cover for the Human Terrain System.
Have I now been given reason to doubt the integrity of Robert Young Pelton, and to retract what I think was valuable about his article? Not necessarily. Yet, there are some questions and allegations that are circulating about Pelton’s “real motives” in writing his article, and these pose additional challenges for analyzing the merits of his work in Afghanistan. Moreover, Pelton himself has, I believe, tended to make matters worse by allegedly threatening at least one critical blogger with a lawsuit on the grounds of libel. (see here, and here). I would prefer to see an open discussion and an airing of all possible facts, rather than trying to silence anyone. In extreme cases, yes, one has to proceed to court, but I am not sure that we have reached such extremes yet.
Who is Robert Young Pelton (aka RYP)? What is Praedict?
The first thing I confess is not doing any research into the background of RYP, primarily because I did not feel it was necessary. I do not need the speaker to be “the right kind of person” before I can quote his/her speech. If Adolf Hitler says, “When there are no clouds, and the sun is shining, the sky is blue,” then I say, “I agree with Adolf Hitler.” That Hitler may be a megalomaniacal, mass murdering scumbag is besides the point if he makes an observation of fact that can be validated, or better yet, a view that meets with considerable intersubjective agreement.
“Old Blue,” the same critical blogger I mentioned above, who writes at Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure, wrote a series of sharp criticisms on my post about Pelton’s article, starting here, claiming (to summarize) that my personal bias allowed me to accept a hack piece that was packed with lies and distortions, and that Pelton had personal business interests for tearing down the Human Terrain System. So this is where this new story really begins.
On his Come Back Alive site, Pelton describes himself in Indiana Jones-like terms that connote danger, adventure, conflict, intrigue, and travel to distant exotic lands filled with guerrillas and mercenaries. He is not marginal in the mainstream media, having produced reports for CNN, CBS’ 60 Minutes, ABC News, the National Geographic Channel, and the Discovery Channel where he has/had his own show called, “The World’s Most Dangerous Places.” (In a map of his world, he ranks Canada as “a vacation with grandma,” and Afghanistan as, “could be your last trip.” Interesting. In my world a vacation with grandma would have been my last trip.)
I would wager that for most anthropologists, all the wrong alarms are sounding now, loudly.
Pelton portrays himself as a bit of the renegade, and he says about himself that he,
“is known for overcoming extraordinary obstacles in his search for the truth. He has made a career of bypassing the media, border guards and the military in his goal of getting to the heart of the story. In his travels to and through the world’s most dangerous places, Pelton has shared risks with his hosts and often has become the sole surviving witness to history-shaping events. His recent journeys have taken him inside the siege of Grozny in Chechnya, the battle of Qala-I-Jangi in Afghanistan, the rebel campaign to take Monrovia in Liberia, inside the hunt for Bin Laden in the Tribal Areas with the CIA, with insurgents during the war in Iraq and running RPG Alley every day for four weeks with Blackwater in Baghdad.”
(I emphasize some words above for purposes that will become apparent below.)
A speakers’ bureau, the Lavin Agency, describes Pelton in these terms:
Robert Pelton’s continuous quest for knowledge and understanding has taken him to remote and exotic areas in more than eighty countries. Among his collection of unbelievable experiences are tales of survival in war-torn Central America, his role in organizing the world’s first television interview of Taliban leaders, and his capture by death squads in Algeria. In his presentations, Pelton never romanticizes war or conflict-he simply takes the opportunity to tell American audiences about the reality of life in other parts of the world, unfiltered by the agendas and political calculations of the mainstream media.
(Going to “remote and exotic” places — no romanticism here? A simple and unfiltered agenda, outside of the mainstream? Let’s see. What we do know is that Pelton has also worked for the mainstream media, and there seems to be a recurring theme of tension, the inside-outsider, the outside-insider, perhaps part of the mystique cultivated by Pelton or others…such as anthropologists in fact.)
Pelton is also a partner of Eason Jordan, the former Chief News Executive for CNN, in a business venture called Praedict. (Jordan resigned from CNN over remarks he made at a Davos forum about U.S. soldiers targeting and killing journalists in Iraq.) Members of the advisory board include Ted Turner. Praedict, which runs “IraqSlogger,” describes its mission and services as follows:
“Praedict offers the next generation of media and insight. We are a group of well known professionals who have come together from media, marketing, and military backgrounds. Praedict’s CEO is Eason Jordan, and its president is Robert Young Pelton. We offer a synthesis of real-time news dissemination, customized content, and analysis distributed through web-based technology. The business is designed to meet the demanding requirements of news consumers, companies, governments, and NGOs operating in high-risk environments.”
On his own site, Jordan says the following about Praedict:
Praedict is an innovative war zone-focused media company providing customized, up-to-the-minute news, insights, and safety tips to those in harm’s way and their employers. Praedict’s businesses include International Safety Networks and IraqSlogger. Eason Jordan founded Praedict and is its Chief Executive Officer. Robert Pelton is Praedict’s co-founder and President….Jordan felt a top-notch news and safety tip service produced for employers and their employees in war zones would empower those at risk to make more enlightened judgments about their movements and actions–perhaps saving lives.
It’s important to read these descriptions carefully. The passages and words I emphasized are there as clues to how some might read the allegedly “true” intentions of Praedict. I say alleged because nothing is yet proven conclusively. I can find no actual Praedict nor International Safety Networks websites as such. For the latter, all that I found of any substance is this entry, which speaks of ISN as a management consulting service with annual sales of $12 million.
(Please note: the description of Praedict from IraqSlogger seems to have been recently revised, and apparently I quoted the newest version without knowing the contents of what the page stated previously. The page has changed between 22 February and early on 24 February 2009. To see that older page, click here. It would seem to furnish much more suggestive material about some of the aims of Praedict. Praedict appears to sell itself as a marriage between journalism, intelligence, and espionage, a troubling hybrid that might alarm some journalists the way HTS alarmed anthropologists. It claimed to offer its services, “for much less than the price of a single seasoned intelligence analyst.”)
Is there a controversy?
One has to sort what are petty quibbles over descriptive details from larger issues of interpretation and perspective. Let’s turn to some of the larger allegations:
(1) Because Pelton has a business interest, his agenda slanted his writing about the Human Terrain System
If necessary, re-read the business descriptions of Praedict above. Some, like “Old Blue,” suggest that these business ventures are designed to muscle in on the Human Terrain System (HTS), and replace it with Praedict’s services, or to get room for a Praedict contract. Highlighting the deficiencies of HTS is allegedly motivated by Pelton’s business interest, his desire to sell a better product.
In the summer of 2008, Eason Jordan, former Chief News Executive at CNN and a partner in two intelligence ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, approached COL(R) Steven Fondacaro of the Human Terrain System (HTS) with a business proposal. He wanted to sell HTS-related intelligence provided through Praedict in Iraq and AfPax Insider in Afghanistan/Pakistan to HTS. Not having any way to verify information provided through such an outside contract, Fondacaro politely declined.
Old Blue says it was “HTS-related intelligence,” but without further elaboration. While the two Praedict company descriptions above contain elements that might support this ambiguously phrased idea, Praedict does not appear to be either equipped or designed to be a HTS reincarnation, nor would it seem to have anything to offer the military that it does not already have in abundance –rather, Praedict draws from the military.
Old Blue then explains that Pelton sought to be embedded with a Human Terrain Team in Afghanistan, without acknowledging his business connections (not that he has done a marvelous job of trying to hide them either, as we see in this very post):
“We had no idea at the time that Pelton was associated with Eason Jordan,” Fondacaro told me. Eason Jordan’s partners in IraqSlogger, Praedict, and AfPax Insider are Ted Turner, GEN(R) Wesley Clark and Robert Young Pelton.
Apparently Pelton decided against traveling to Afghanistan in the company of Montgomery McFate (the so-called lead anthropologist at the Human Terrain System), on an official visit, and decided to go there on his own. Old Blue states that there was a reason for going by himself, and in advance of his “embed”:
Pelton arrived in Afghanistan days before the embed was to begin. He spent this time in Kabul, marketing his intelligence services to International Security Assistance Force, known as ISAF, commanded by GEN McKiernan.
On September 17th, 2008, Pelton called a member of a team at Bagram Air Field (BAF,) according to insiders. In notes on the conversation, it is noted that Pelton, “bragged about his intel/HT (Human Terrain) consulting contract with ISAF,” says a source who declines to be named, citing security concerns. The source goes on to say that the contract Pelton bragged about included, “cultural advisors, area specialists, polling, and other services.” Pelton, the source explains, “claimed he wanted to see how HTS was operating and that writing an article about us was the best way to get that information.”
So what? Pelton has business interests, everyone he meets and deals with has interests. He has a business venture of some relevance, and what is the problem?
Old Blue advised skepticism, but he has only provided material that is suggestive of cause and effect relationships, but does not demonstrate them. He questions one side in the story, Pelton, but not the other side, the officials who lead HTS. Indeed, he takes their words as unproblematic, and uses them to push the allegation that Pelton’s piece was preemptive, profit-motivated, business propaganda:
Would it make his own intelligence services more marketable if HTS and its management were discredited? Was this article written to assist in furthering his business objectives?
Dr. McFate says, “I don’t feel proprietary about this. I believe in the concept and I want the Army to be successful. If Mr. Pelton feels that he can do this properly, then he can try. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
Asked about the disturbance caused to the HTS at a very delicate time it its young history, Dr. McFate says, “It’s upsetting if this is an attempt to damage the program. This is not in the public interest.” (source)
Pelton is certainly free to use his time in Afghanistan however he likes — he does not need permission from HTS to market his goods. HTS does not own the U.S. military, nor does it own Afghanistan, nor does it own Pelton’s time. Pelton’s observations that appear to reveal serious problems with HTS are simply additions to much that we already knew about a program that has been in trouble and has indeed been restructured so as to eliminate the private contracting element. But that also strikes out Praedict. That Pelton can have a business agenda — that Hitler can be a murdering bastard — does not automatically and necessarily mean that he has to make up what he writes about, just like it does not mean that Hitler was wrong to say the sky is blue.
Old Blue may be onto something, he may even have the right hunches, but he has not demonstrated what he needs to, and he does not seem to have sufficient evidence to do so. Any supposed threats from Pelton make matters worse for Pelton: they encourage Old Blue into thinking that he really is on the right track.
(2) Pelton fabricates his material, probably because he has something against the Army or the U.S. mission in Afghanistan
Old Blue has dedicated one very long post to disputing each and every little descriptive detail in Pelton’s article in the Men’s Journal. Yet the entire post is premised on belief: what Old Blue believes to be true, without having been in Pelton’s company, without seeing what Pelton saw, or being present at the conversations Pelton had. The driving logic behind the post is, “because it doesn’t sound right to me, it cannot be true.” The post is a bit of a degenerative one, to be polite: it is loaded with snide, personal insults, against Pelton, against anthropologists, and significantly, against anyone who would dare to cast the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in a negative light as an imperialist occupation. The latter slant is what drove Old Blue to this blog, to debate me.
The focus can be on such minute detail that this bigger aim of Old Blue’s seems to be lost. He even disputes whether a helicopter was decorated with a figure of death, and later, when sent a photograph of the helicopter by Pelton himself, Old Blue was forced to publish a retraction. Old Blue had been proven wrong on one point at least — so much for belief, so much for what sounds right.
There is also a very naive logic at work in Old Blue’s approach: given the same objective realities, we will all see the same things, we will see them in the same way, and come to the same replicable and verifiable conclusions. He thinks that is “science.” It is actually rubbish. Old Blue needs to acquaint himself with Rashomon, not Descartes.
Then there is the complaint from Old Blue, as well as McFate and Fondacaro, that Pelton was not respectful towards them, towards HTS, or towards the Army’s “general orders” (such as not bringing alcohol onto a base, that apparently was already loaded with it; such as sharing a drink with a soldier who was not supposed to drink, but who did anyway, and this is Pelton’s fault). My question again is: so what? How is this bad news? How is this a problem?
One would expect, indeed, demand that these “embedded” journalists show far greater independence, not running with the grain, not deferring to authority, not submissive like partners who are not in an embed, but rather just simply in bed. This is where Old Blue’s complaints actually do the opposite of what he intended: they shore up Pelton’s legitimacy and credibility. Indeed, his apparent disrespect and renegade ways seem to perfectly match Pelton’s self-description at the top of this post.
If Pelton wanted to write against imperialism, then he really fails, and would need to do a lot more work to be convincing on that front. I do not believe there is anything in Pelton’s background, his professional interests, his employment, etc., that remotely smacks of the anti-imperialist. I did not think so before, and I still do not. When Old Blue associates us, my liking Pelton because he says what I want to hear, his understanding is flawed on that very count: Pelton nowhere comes even remotely close to saying what I want to hear. What Pelton’s case does show is that anyone who writes in the mainstream media, and who deviates from either wilfull blindness or unquestioning praise of authority, will find himself set upon by a “pitchfork parade” that seeks to shame and silence — suppression of a free media, but in slow motion.
Old Blue is falling into a trap of his own making, and that is drinking from the well of Donald Rumsfeld. “Occupation” is an unauthorized word, we must never use it. (Old Blue never offered a credible alternative, let it be noted yet again.) To think that Pelton is somehow the opposition, in the same camp as myself, is to take an extreme binary view like that of George Bush: you are either with us, or against us. And you are against us, it seems, if your writing wavers in any little way from the official line. Indeed, Old Blue himself asked me to read official statements and mission statements to prove that U.S. imperialism in Afghanistan is an “occupation” — again, looking to the official line.
Conclusions? Small Potatoes Do Not a Banquet Make
In his reponse to Fondacaro and McFate, Pelton wrote the following:
Ultimately I believe any outsider exposed to what I saw would have come away with the same disconcerting sense of dysfunction, isolation and frustration but for the record that was not my goal when I first chose to focus on the human terrain program. My goal was to see the program at its best, not its worst.
Since you have the most to gain and the most to lose, I put it back to you: Why not admit that what bothered you about this article was the conduct and problems in the system? I would think that your energy is best spent on fixing the problems, not critiquing someone who points them out.
This does not strike me as coming from someone who has an alternative plan to sell, not if he wants the current one to be fixed. Either way, there is no evidence to back a claim that his motives are anti-military, or cynically guided by his own quest for profit.
That does not stop the “milblogging” pack of hounds though:
there are guys like Pelton out there who are chasing little specks of Pulitzer dust and they know exactly the tone and tenor of the stories they need to write in order to achieve their goal. They are not going to be successful due to our military men and woman who are now able to enter the debate via the World Wide Web. (source)
You can enter the debate, but you need to enter it armed with evidence, and armed with the logic to make the most sense of the evidence. Given the behaviour of the U.S. military and U.S. intelligence, there seems to be a very serious deficit on all of these fronts.
Links to related articles and sources:
- Robert Young Pelton, “Afghanistan: The New War for Hearts and Minds,” Men’s Journal, 21 January 2009
- Steve Fondacaro & Montgomery McFate, “U.S. Army Response to Robert Young Pelton’s The New War for Hearts and Minds,” Men’s Journal, 12 February 2009
- Robert Young Pelton: Response to Fondacaro & McFate, 12 February 2009
- Come Back Alive
- The Lavin Agency: Robert Young Pelton
- AllExperts: Robert Young Pelton
- Wikipedia: Robert Young Pelton
- Eason Jordan
- Praedict 1
- Praedict 2
- Praedict 3
- Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure: Picasso Pelton — Old Blue’s Paint by Numbers
- Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure:Mea Culpa
- Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure: The Adventurist Gut Punches HTS… Shades Of Meo? (Edited To Clarify Personal Opinion On A Matter Of Public Interest)
- The Stupidest Man on Earth: The Pelton Controversy — Colouring the Facts in Afghanistan
- Free Range International: Afghanistan as Vietnam
- Cosmic Iguana: Robert Young Pelton claims U.S. Mercs behind sectarian violence?
- Say Anything Blog: Eason Jordan and his Shill
- Casual Nexus: Robert Young Pelton
- A Soldier’s Perspective: The Unraveling of Pelton
- BLACKFIVE: Blustery Adventurer versus Milblogger
- Susan Katz Keating: Pitchfork Alert! Snarkiest Man Alive Hurls Horse Effluvia at American Soldiers
- The Mudville Gazette: Re: Crap from Pelton
- Murdoc Online: “A grim fury that would make the Taliban jealous”
- In Harmonium: How to influence friends and make them enemies