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Michael Yon to return to Afghanistan


20 Feburary 2011
Reprinted from The US Report
Kay B. Day

Band-e-Amir in Bamyan Province is Afghanistan’s first national park; it consists of six spectacular turquoise lakes separated by natural dams of travertine. [CIA World Factbook; photo and caption.]

Michael Yon just wrapped up a series of dispatches from Nepal, Afghanistan, Thailand and Burma, and he will return to Afghanistan in February. It’s been almost a year since he was last embedded with troops there, but he hasn’t exactly been away from action. He left Afghanistan in 2010 and headed to Southeast Asia. Then he returned to Afghanistan alone.

Thailand had its moments. “There was actually some serious combat,” he said. “My hotel was hit with an RPG three floors above me. Roughly 90 people were killed and maybe 1,800 wounded. So it was not exactly peaceful where I was.” However, Yon said most of Thailand was “very safe.”
Aside from covering conflicts, Yon dealt with the usual controversies in the blogosphere over some of the things he’s written or said (and some that he neither wrote nor said). The milblogger community comprises numerous personalities, all of them passionate about their subjects.

Yon’s the kind of writer other writers argue about, sometimes to the point of absurdity. One fracas started over a writer who mentioned Yon in an article—a sentence or two max.  The story was actually about a critically wounded soldier Yon had emailed a civilian support group about. Pretty soon the boys in the blogosphere were in a verbal dustup over Yon. Some accused Yon of writing things he never wrote. Yon said many of the milblogs are known more for shouts than research.

Meanwhile Yon kept doing the kind of reporting that’s given him a top perch in the arena of war reportage. Few milbloggers—actually come to think of it few nonfiction writers in any sphere—achieve the level of recognition Yon has earned.

He’s done that largely with his pen. When he chooses to tell a story, he does it well. One of his latest dispatches, River of Tears: Snapshots from the Edge of a War, is a journey into villages in the jungle where there are enough parasites and germs to earn the place the name “Dirty Jungle.” The photo essay is creatively rendered with carefully composed shots accompanied by commentary and description—the war, the villagers, the displaced and the children with ever-hopeful looks on their faces despite adversity. Local color is an understated description for what Yon includes in his account.

Yon has a particular strength for composition when he’s blending photos and narrative—he has a sharp eye for light. There’s a photo of a boy who’s apparently not in school when others are. Knife slung in a sheath across his shoulder, he carries on his back the cane he has cut. There are some photos of children of all ages in school—and a few of sick children whose images tug at the heart.

Yon said he’s returned to Afghanistan to about six provinces since McChrystal’s crew “mysteriously” ended his embed. Yon confronted criticism for calling things as he saw them in Afghanistan during his last embed. He singled out both Brig. Gen. Daniel Menard (Canada) and Gen. Stanley McChrystal.  Canada replaced Menard in June, 2010, and McChrystal resigned that month as well.

McChrystal was heavily criticized after publication of a feature in Rolling Stone magazine. The magazine even took credit for it, with a headline saying the controversial profile of McChrystal “changed history.”

Yon had also reported on a suicide bombing of a key bridge in March, 2010. Civilians and one US soldier were killed; others were wounded. Yon raised questions about who was responsible for the security breach, accusing Menard of incompetence. Yon also broke unrelated information that eventually led to the firing of Menard who now faces a criminal charge and possible prison.

Yon said during a trip to Afghanistan after his embed ended, he declined to embed. “I was unilateral. I’ve had many invitations to embed since the problems with McChrystal’s people, but have not actually embedded since then.”

“Nobody needs to embed with the military to discover the underlying currents of the war,” Yon explained. “In 2006, I wrote twelve dispatches derived from my unilateral time in Afghanistan, and if anyone wants to see how Afghanistan is today, they can just go back and read those dozen dispatches.”

He said he took heavy criticism for those dispatches. “But they have proven accurate. I did not need the military to find the truth of the situation in 2006 or 2010, and I don’t need them today. When I go back in February, I will start off alone and in the most dangerous places. I will not hide in the rear with milbloggers who are afraid to go alone, but instead will go to places where truth can be met face to face.”

Asked whether his readers will be glad to see him return, Yon said many of them are happy about it. Yon has more than 42,000 supporters on his Facebook page. “Gen. [David] Petraeus has personally welcomed me, so I think it’s time to get back,” he added. “I respect Gen. Petraeus immensely for his wisdom and his honesty.”

Yon seems to be positive about a good outcome in Afghanistan. “With Gen. Petraeus,” he said, “we have a solid chance at some form of success. How that success will look is like trying to guess next month’s weather.”

(Filed by Kay B. Day/Feb. 15, 2011)

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