Ethics Corner: Military's Editors Watch Him Closely

Article excerpt

In civilian life, Jim Gossens is a practical nurse. But for the past eight months, he has been a Sergeant First Class manning a .50-caliber heavy machine gun inside a Humvee in Iraq. He has opened windows to his world by compiling a diary of war-zone life with his Vermont Army National Guard unit that is published periodically in The Burlington Free Press, his hometown newspaper.

Geoffrey Gevalt, the Free Press' managing editor, calls Gossens' work "experiential journalism" -- a process in which non-professional writers provide first-person accounts of their experiences.

"We get it first, and then the National Guard reviews it," Gevalt said of Gossens' copy. "The changes they make are minor. We feel very comfortable that the diaries are a very straightforward account of Jim's life in Iraq."

The Free Press notes in a sidebar to the diaries that "the Vermont National Guard reviewed these journals to ensure no details -- such as specific location or routes -- could threaten the soldiers' security."

Until recently, Gossens was stationed at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Duke, 15 miles outside Najaf, with Enosburg, Vt.-based Company B, 1st Battalion, 172 Armor. His lengthy pieces were filled with poignant encounters with Iraqi citizens; one report detailed an emotional moment when he almost killed an innocent commuter who ignored Gossens' signal to stop his car. His section of the site also includes a photo gallery.

The two diaries the Free Press published (the first entry was Feb. 22, 2005) have generated tremendous reader response, but the question remains: Do the pieces serve to inform the readers, or do they serve as propaganda for the Army? Gossen kept his feelings about the war out of his copy (he said in one piece that his opinions on that were irrelevant).

"Every soldier is entitled to his opinion," 1st Lt. Veronica Saffo, public affairs officer for the Vermont National Guard, told me. "But when a soldier speaks, he represents everyone in the Army. That's why we have to review the copy. It is clearly not censorship."

Gossen, 43, told me in August just before he returned to Iraq that he worries about inadvertently providing information that might be useful to insurgents. "I don't want to tell anything that would help the bad guys," he said. …