March 15, 2013: In Russia, a political party (United Russia, which currently controls the government) decided to erect some billboards to celebrate a February 23rd holiday (to honor the creation of the Red Army in 1918). Party leaders approved a billboard showing a modern tank roaring by in the dust with a soldier in the turret waving in a manly fashion. The text said simply “Happy Defender of Fatherland Day”. No one noticed, until the billboards were in place for all to see, that the tank was an Israeli Merkava 3 and the waving soldier was an Israeli. Actually the soldier may have been Russian (or born in Israel of Russian parents) because over a million Jews (and some non-Jewish kin) moved from the Soviet Union to Israel over the last 35 years. Now the “Russians” comprise about 15 percent of the 7.9 million Israelis. In any event, the error was embarrassing, not least because the Merkava is considered (at least by non-Russian experts) to be superior to Russian tanks and even Russians will admit that Russian Israeli soldiers are better than Russian ones.
Russian politicians aren’t the only ones unable to identify the weapons their troops use. Last September at the U.S. Democratic Party convention, a tribute to military veterans featured a retired admiral giving a speech while behind him was projected an impressive image of four warships coming towards the audience. What most people viewing this scene did not realize was that the ships on that screen were Russian, not American. Such an error should not have been a surprise.
This sort of facile military reporting and media presentation of the military has become increasingly common in both Russia and the United States. It goes beyond calling all warships (except carriers and subs) “battleships” (a class of ship that went out of wide use half a century ago) or calling self-propelled artillery (or even infantry fighting vehicles) “tanks” simply because they all have turrets (but very different uses). The bad reporting includes many other basic items of equipment, training, leadership, tactics, and casualties.
It all started back in the 1970s, when conscription in the United States ended and the many World War II veterans in journalism, public affairs, and advertising (all of whom help out at major political events) began to retire. The end of conscription meant new journalists were much less likely to have any knowledge of military affairs. It became increasingly easy to make stupid and embarrassing, mistakes. While Russia still has conscription, far fewer Russians have served since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
The new ignorance also caused safety issues for reporters. Thus a decade ago, after years of being urged to establish a "boot camp" for journalists, the U.S. Department of Defense finally did so. A week long course was offered, free (at various locations the journalists had to get to). The course not only helped make reporting more accurate but also was intended to help save journalists lives. Russia has also found themselves dealing with a growing number of reporters who don’t seem to know much about the military.
The U.S. familiarization course also taught basic battlefield common sense, as well as some first aid and what to do in the event the enemy used nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. On the reporting side, the students learned "military customs" (who is who, what the jargon means, and why the troops do certain things in and out of a combat zone). Also taught was the concept of "rules of engagement" and what the various weapons used were (sort of a show and tell). The trainers were also prepared to answer a lot of questions. The 1991 Gulf War saw the first calls for this kind of course, for it was then that it was realized that most new war reporters had no military experience (the draft ended in 1972) and were prone to misidentify and misinterpret things in a way that put the military (and sometimes the media) in a bad light.
Despite these efforts to educate battlefield journalists, there are still so few media specialists with any military knowledge that media disasters like the ones in Russia and at the U.S. Democratic Party convention will continue to occur. It's not just that fewer people serve in the military. That was about one percent of the American population, compared to 12 percent during World War II and 3-5 percent during the Cold War. In Russia 17 percent of the entire population was killed during World War II and about 20 percent served in the military. There is also growing hostility in the media towards the military and anyone associated with military affairs. This is more of an issue in the United States because the mass media in Russia is again state controlled. Without many Americans really noticing it, military knowledge in the mass media largely went away over the last 40 years and the damage this has done to the quality of reporting on military affairs is increasing. Now Russia is undergoing the same metamorphosis.