Why is it so difficult for us to deal with issues regarding the military? I think it’s in large part because we have so little practice, a result of the news media treating the military as a “sacred cow” and generally exempt from critical local reporting. I think this is unhealthy for all of us.

Local news reporting on the military is typically limited to coverage of “patriotic” events and holidays, stories on the Defense Department’s economic contributions, change of command ceremonies, emotional “going to war” departures and homecomings, and various repeats of the “service men and women as heroes” theme. All those things might be true, but they are far from the whole story, or even the most important part of the story.

We don’t often get real reporting about military institutions and policies, the kind of reporting that uncovers uncomfortable facts and seeks accountability and transparency. Even Stars and Stripes, the military’s own independent news service, generates harder news than our local media.

We’re left with a laundry list of questions unasked and problems ignored. There are national budget issues, such as whether it really made sense to launch a huge, long-term increase in construction of military housing units here in Honolulu, one of the highest cost cities in the country. How about the impact on local residents of housing competition with military personnel receiving housing allowances. There are social issues, such the impact of military gang activities on the civilian community. There are opportunity costs of the military’s presence, things that we can’t do because our resources, including large chunks of real estate, are controlled by the DOD. Are these managed well? Poorly? What difference does it make?

Until we’re able to ask the hard questions about local matters, we won’t be in any position to deal with the big national issues as they arise.

News Reporting Can Make a Difference

Take the looming sequester and its $85 billion in spending cuts targeted for this fiscal year, including across-the-board cuts in Department of Defense programs that could hit Hawaii hard.

This should have been an opportunity for broad public discussion and debate on crucial issues. That has happened to some extent at the national level and in the halls of Congress, where interest groups and defense industry lobbyists, along with politicians on both sides of the aisle, have clashed over whether to simply restore the threatened cuts or reform our national security policies.

But local media attention has largely focused on the predicted short-term impacts of the sequester and the communities and programs will be hurt by abrupt cuts. The substantive “big picture” differences over foreign and military policy, military might vs. human security, and how to best ensure our nation’s future security, have been drowned out or pushed aside. And our members of Congress seem similarly limited in their policy perspectives.

Coincidentally, while the debate over sequestration was raging in Washington, a small brouhaha erupted at Hilo High School when the school abruptly cancelled a scheduled presentation by a local peace activist after objections were raised about the speaker’s assumed “anti-military” opinions.

The incident sparked protests from conservatives who felt the peace activist should never have been invited, and from liberals who objected to the cancellation.

I don’t think a campus appearance by a critic of the military would have ever been an issue except for the fact that dissenting views are rarely reported and, as a result, they are surprising and, to some, disturbing when they do come to public attention. It isn’t that the military, and military policies, lack critics. It’s just that they tend to be ignored by the mainstream media, especially at the local level. Their views are unfamiliar, even to the portion of the public that reads newspapers or watches television news, so it’s not surprising that they seem out of place when they finally get a bit of attention.

As long as the military is allowed to remain a sacred cow, issues both large and small are far more difficult to address.

One very positive step would be to encourage the media to cover the local military like we cover local schools. Look past what they say to find what they actually do. Disclose the problems that are well known to insiders but invisible to the rest of us. Pick apart the fraud, waste, and abuse. Challenge military secrecy. Cover all sides of the policy debates. Recognize legitimate dissent. Connect local discussions to national debates. Identify the special interests and their influence. Press politicians for more than canned answers to serious questions.

In brief, remove the military from its privileged pedestal. Then we’ll be in a better position to take on the issues, here at home and in Washington.

Read Ian Lind’s blog at iLind.net.