Tracking the military is her 'mission'

Dana Priest interviews an Afghan farmer in the mountains above Shomali in Afghanistan.
Photo: NBC/Norman Ng

Washington Post reporter Dana Priest (B.S., Politics, Merrill College, '81) critiques the trend toward soldier-peacekeepers in her new book

Timing is everything. Just ask Washington Post reporter Dana Priest--if you can catch her. Her first book, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military, arrived in bookstores this past spring just as jittery Americans prepared for war in Iraq.

She then headed out on a book tour, with stops in eight cities in two weeks, interviews on morning TV shows and C-SPAN, and Council of Foreign Relations speeches. Her vivid account of life with America's military--much of it based on her reporting for the Washington Post--struck a chord. "The reception was just great," she says. "A lot of that had to do with the timing of the book--a lot of people were trying to read about and were wondering about the military."

In the book, Priest warns of a dangerous trend toward having the military handle quasi-diplomatic missions, filling a vacuum left by underfunded civilian agencies. "The face of America is becoming a face with a helmet on," she observed on one TV program.

"On the one hand, you can't help but like the troops, in the sense that they are trying hard, with the wrong tools, to do something they weren't trained for in a culture they don't know," she says. "They don't want to be doing it, and yet they have this very American can-do spirit about them so they're not going to sit around and do nothing."

But despite the soldiers' best efforts, Priest says, "they make some mistakes, and they make some bad mistakes, which gives me pause about what they are doing there." As an alternative, Priest proposes the creation of civilian nation-building forces that are as well organized and well funded as the military. The U.S. experience in postwar Iraq has, if anything, strengthened her view. The U.S. government "grossly underestimated" the need for peacekeepers and a civilian component in rebuilding Iraq, she said. "They didn't send in a lot of troops that could just keep the peace. I wish everything were working better, but I think it will get a lot worse before it gets better--if it gets better at all," she said in June.

While Priest critiques the trend toward soldier-peacekeepers, her high regard for the troops is clear throughout the book. In fact, Priest sees bridging the civilian-military gap as her own personal mission as an author. She cites two key trends she has witnessed as a reporter: "The military was taking on more and more nontraditional duties, while at the same time the civilians who were supposed to tell the military what they should be doing knew less and less about the military."

This lack of knowledge can lead to unhealthy stereotypes--something Priest says she witnessed during her years in college. "The antimilitary feeling, I believe, is often totally misplaced. It is not the military's decision to go anywhere--it is the civilians' decision to send them there. All these missions are not their choosing; they get sent there by somebody not in uniform."

Following years as the Washington Post's Pentagon correspondent, Priest spent eight months on the newspaper's investigative reporting team for a series about America's regional military commanders. The series, "The Proconsuls," earned her the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on the National Defense and forms the basis for part of her book. She also received a research and writing grant from the MacArthur Foundation to write the book.

Priest has traveled widely with both military leaders and troops in the field. Whether in Colombia, Afghanistan, Kosovo, or Nigeria, Priest says she did not feel in danger, but did have "some hair-raising experiences." One time in Nigeria, she took a two-hour ride in an old Soviet helicopter from the capital into the bush. The helicopter was "combat flying" she explains-- "They go as low as they possibly can, because it's harder to shoot at a helicopter if it's flying past you quickly. So you really hug the Earth--or the trees, or the river, whatever." She sat up front, in the "place of honor" without so much as a door to shut next to her. "There were times when I put my feet up--it just felt like we were coming so close to the water."

Priest, who took a leave from the Post to write The Mission, stays a little closer to home these days. She lives in Washington near the White House with her husband, William Goodfellow, executive director of the Center for International Policy, and their two children. Still, Priest keeps a hectic pace--she barely took time to unpack from her book tour before she was back in the newsroom breaking major intelligence stories that appeared in newspapers around the nation in the days leading up to the invasion of Iraq.

Those stories made her a frequent guest on TV news and discussion programs during the war and its complicated aftermath, and she is now an analyst for NBC.

Not one to slow down, Priest would like to do another book, though she declines to go into detail for fear of jinxing the project. Writing a book appeals to her reporter's curiosity, she says. "You peel back the onion, keep peeling it back, and really get closer to the truth about a subject."

-Louise Gilmore Donahue

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