Afghanistan: Marjah? Ulcer? This ain’t no bleeding ulcer!
And so the war turns: I highlighted McClatchy’s story on McChrystal and Marjah earlier in the week, wherein the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF, to his friends) was quoted calling Marjah a “bleeding ulcer.” The headline of the story, apparently, didn’t go down well with the folks at ISAF HQ. To wit, Admiral Smith, the chief public relations man in Afghanistan, wrote a letter to the lads at McClatchy:
…The key part of that dialogue that Dion witnessed was “You don’t feel it here, but I’ll tell you, it’s a bleeding ulcer outside.” That would have been further clarified by the quote Dion asked to use (which did not appear in the final edited copy) about Gen. McChrystal being asked in Europe and the U.S. whether we are failing. The essence of the comment is not that Marjah itself is going badly: as he said to Dion in a follow on interview on the plane ride back to Kabul — it’s largely on track. It’s that it’s misperceived to be going badly. It’s a distinction, but one I’m sure you grasp and one that could have been better conveyed, even accounting for the motive of wanting to generate interest in the story using the sensational quote: “McChrystal calls for action against perceptions of ‘bleeding ulcer’ in Marjah,” etc.
Okay, so the command would have preferred a headline of ‘calls for actions against perceptions of ‘bleeding ulcer.’ Editor Roy Gutman responds by standing by the story, and pointing out that, in general, headlines like the one suggested above don’t actually exist.
On the headline, though, we’ve discussed it and do not see it as intellectually dishonest or a mischaracterization. It was drawn from the first part of Gen. McChrystal’s statement; “This is a bleeding ulcer right now,” and your staff cleared that statement. Moreover, in the context of the opening anecdote, which suggested that outside pressures are intense and political leaders have limited patience, the further exchange Gen. McChrystal had about force levels and the facts on the ground, Marjah is a very problematic place in the short term. It adds up to being a “bleeding ulcer.”
Good headlines always pick the most salient point of a story in order to grab reader’s attention, and this one did its job. On the issue of balance, the story portrays Gen. McChrystal’s trip as a reality check for himself, the troops on the ground and the American public. The news was in his warnings to the troops about the level of political impatience in Washington and in Europe with the operation in Marjah. Our reporting back here confirms the accuracy of his assertions.