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PBS Ombudsman

Ombudsman's Mailbag

Like all good Marines, when attacked, they launch a strong counter-offensive. Last week's ombudsman's column was about a 90-minute documentary titled "The Marines" that aired in mid-February. Most of the mail from viewers at the time — and most of my assessment — was negative; not about the Marines but about PBS's editorial standards in presenting something as a documentary that was devoid of any critical assessments and that came across mostly as a well-done recruiting and promotional film sponsored by a family foundation that is a big supporter of other Marine Corps projects.

But this week, "The Marines" continued to be the recipient of more commentary to the ombudsman's office than other subjects, and it was much more positive. A lot of it is from former Marines or families of Marines. Here are several of the new letters, and, at their conclusion, I've repeated my assessment from last week.

The Few, The Proud

I watched the documentary on Marines and thought it was well produced. I think it offered an in depth look at the rigorous physical and psychological training that the Marine goes through in order to create a loyal and highly skilled group of men and women ready to defend Country and comrade at any cost. I thought it focused on how one becomes a Marine, and also what it means to be a Marine. They are an elite group that has self-discipline, self sacrifice while they work together to overcome an objective under extremely stressful and adverse circumstances. I am very proud and grateful that we have such and elite group, and very proud of my son who is a Marine.

Karen Barkeloo, Utica, OH

I am not sure why so many were critical of the Marine special you ran. I am married to a Captain in the Marine Corps and I am not sure what they expected. Shouldn't Marines be proud to be Marines? Shouldn't a show about them be dedicated to that pride? Like any organization, the Corps has flaws but this show was meant to show the great warriors they are. I enjoyed it!

Maumee, OH

Being a Marine myself, I found the show to be OUTSTANDING! If folks have ever wondered why Marines are like they are, I think this show explained it all. Who wouldn't want to be one of the Few? Documentary or recruiting — whatever you want to call it, it was a pretty good show. I want to say "thank you" in advance for the new ones who might sign with the Marine Corps just because they saw this show. As usual, GOOD JOB PBS — KEEP 'EM COMING!

Kimberly Green, Atlanta, GA

I am a Marine veteran and the son of a WWII Marine. My son is now a Marine serving with the 2nd Battalion 4th Marine Regiment in Al Anbar, Iraq. I am of the generation that was spit on or had the middle finger raised to us if we dared to wear our uniform in public. I can't thank PBS enough for a positive documentary on our Marine Corps. I have never been a supporter of PBS because I have always sensed a liberal bias in most of what is aired. Now I guess I have to rethink my opinion.

Douglas Petersen, Elgin, AZ

I'm gratified that others have expressed their feelings of discomfort with the Marine documentary. It made me uncomfortable almost immediately and I attribute this to the tone, the lack of examination, and not the content. I was intrigued to watch this special but it was a disquieting experience to have this as a PBS offering. I'm not sure what it was. A piece of propaganda and self aggrandizement at any rate. Something not worthy of what I expect PBS to be and I was embarrassed by it as a long time supporter.

M.S., Duluth, MN

Semper Fi

As a retired Marine and one who served a Marine Drill Instructor and subsequently a Marine Officer I found the program most accurate and I appreciate the effort put into making the program as realistic as possible. I served two tours in RVN and the training I received as an enlisted Marine and an Officer of Marines toward my survival and success in my career. Marines are a "Band of Brothers" that can't be explained or expressed unless you are a Marine. God bless you and Semper Fidelis.

Pat M. Curd, Milan, TN
CWO-3 USMC (Ret)

The Marines — Great program-Semper Fi! I have read the negative comments about the program and it doesn't surprise me one bit. My only comment to those that don't understand the Marine Corps ethos . . . is that "if we have to explain it — you never will understand." Semper Fi!

Williamsburg, VA

My son joined the Marines. He's currently in Boot Camp in Parris Island, SC. He left Jan. 8, 2007. I personally was interested in watching the program because I wanted to see the situations he'd encounter as a Recruit, and the process he'd go through to become a United States Marine. I'm proud of my son for making the decision to become a Marine.

Valerie Chieffallo, Pittsburgh, PA

I have been a Marine for 24 years and interviewed for the Marines documentary. I feel that the documentary was a very well done piece of work that covered many of the intangibles of our Corps. The majority of the pieces that you see on Marines are centered on Marines engaged in battle. This documentary highlighted why Marines perform the way they do and why we are called all to defend the nation.

I am appalled by some of the comments that were posted to this site. It is a shame that we have citizens that think that way. I hope they realize that not just the Marine Corps but all the services are here to make sure they have that right, misguided as they may be. The nation is in a global struggle against forces that would like to see us cease to exist. There are those of us who truly believe in and love our country and are prepared to go in harms way to defend her. I hope that a vocal minority will not prevent you from other documentaries or stories that celebrate a positive outlook on our country.

Shane Franklin, Manassas, VA

My wife and I are contributors to KVIE. I just happened to stumble across the PBS-sponsored program on the Marine Corp, which supposedly "examines the unique 'Warrior Culture' of the smallest but fiercest branch of the U.S. armed services." I really don't believe that "examines" is the right word to use here. It was purely an info-mercial for the Marines, funded by an ex-Marine's foundation. It was not an examination at all. Seems to me that there was a time when PBS was above this kind of thing. I understand that money and politics speak volumes, but there is still something called integrity.

Los Gatos, CA

"The Marines" was an absolutely marvelous presentation. Please show it again. Every American in the US should watch it. I'm going to, over and over. Many thanks.

Kathleen Jackson, Port Townsend, WA

Understanding the Brotherhood

I would like to comment on the Marines documentary, I watched last night. I enjoyed it, being a former active member of the corps. and Gulf War I vet. I just read some of your supporters' comments, and would like to add my own. Was it propagandish? Maybe, considering I thought it would be good viewing for current enlistees to the corps. We had to watch a similar video, produced by the corps, as well as Full Metal Jacket. I appreciated the OCS segment, only hearing about it; as well as the martial arts training, the desert training, and the wounded barracks. These are aspects that were not available, during my service.

I wanted my wife to watch this, to better understand, that I was not just a Marine vet, in a fancy uniform. Most people don't understand the military, let alone the Marines. Some may say we're brainwashed, or we're some twisted ancient cult. What a cult, defends a nation for all the right reasons, and doesn't ask why or will I die. You learn that in boot camp; you may die, but we're going to teach you how to stay alive. The brotherhood lives, outside the Marines, as well. Marines say Semper Fi, to each other on the street. They organize Marine Corps. birthday events every November, not sponsored by the military in any way. I don't know of any other services that do this. Knowing people from all the services, not one celebrates or even remembers the services founding date nor cares anymore. They're like school kids with "no need to remember that anymore" attitudes. Another thing, the Marine Corps does not allow any person/entity, to enter its "house," and portray it as anything negative. Call it self preservation, public relations, etc. That is why you see more movies about the Army and Navy, vs. the Marines. A Few Good Men, was borderline, however it did show the true values and traditions of the Marines. One of the most remembered scenes, by almost all viewers, is the courtroom, when Nicholson is on the stand. When he starts to go off, on his rant. Most get chills of comfort, whether they like his character or not, because he speaks the truth, and fact. People realize this is what Marines do, everyday, for them. Unless you are a Marine, you can't understand their world. Marines are humane, and do not enjoy War. However, we do realize, it may be inevitable. It is better to be prepared for the worst, than to be standing in the street, wondering what do we do now, while the emergency alert is going off, in stereo with the sirens, like 9-11.

At the age of 37, I am no longer wanted by the Marines for reenlistment. My wife and children also have their say. However, if I did not have these responsibilities, or age discrepancies, I would go back to the desert, to help finish my part of the job. Once a Marine, always a Marine. On a side note to those worrying about teenagers being recruited by this documentary. They don't sit at home watching documentaries on PBS at 9 p.m. Sorry PBS!

John Henning, Lansdale, PA

OOHRAH for your 90 minutes on the Marine Corps. My son will be deployed with his Marine unit to Iraq in approximately 45 days. Not a dry eye in the house watching. Thank God we have young people who still believe in themselves and our country. Thanks for the outstanding job.

Michael Foelsch, Littleton, CO

I am an ex-marine (Vietnam era), twice wounded. My support for PBS is beginning to wane. The Marine "documentary" was, in my opinion, sheer propaganda. It was extremely narrow in focus, bent on deepening mythologies of warriordom and war. Possibly, a documentary examining the themes of LeShan's "The Psychology of War" would be an interesting contrast.

Mack Green, Masonville, CO

To characterize the mental wounds of war (which come from killing and watching others get killed) as part of a Marine's "sacrifice" sounds to me like the ultimate rationalization. Post-traumatic stress disorder is a terrible and debilitating disease, not something to be glorified and used to sell our national vigilantism. And if you consider for one moment the shameful mental-health record of the military at present (i.e. the government is always looking for a way to avoid paying the long-term mental health care costs of veterans), I think this moment of your "documentary" will seem all the more deceitful.

Steve Edwards, Lincoln, NE

As a former Peace Corps volunteer, a proud bleeding-heart liberal and a practicing, card-carrying "girlie man," I'd ask you to reconsider your negative opinion of that PBS special on the U.S. Marines. I saw the show and had no problem with it. It's not the network's fault that the Corps is a macho outfit. These guys are the real deal; they live off that "noble warrior"; they devour it; they wallow in it; if they didn't, there wouldn't be anything resembling the Marine Corps. Do I "approve"? Hell no. Would I join up? Puhleeze, not in a million years. But am I glad we had men adhering to the Marine code during WWII, when it came time to storm fortified beaches, with the expectation of 30% casualties? Yeah. And I know that's a corny argument. But guess what? Dying for one's country is a pretty corny exercise in patriotism. Lighten up, Michael.

Los Angeles, CA

USMC & PBS: I was glad to see PBS airing a military piece, especially about the Marines (my bias). People seem to think that PBS is only reserved for liberal issues, plays and masterpiece theaters. Yet the word "Public" is all inclusive of life's issues. War is not pretty nor can one fight it by the book. People should be thankful that some are willing to perform the job. Their training is demanding because they must persevere under chaos and it takes a warrior ethos to go through those pains. I have a lot of respect for them and I know they are not all perfect. It is easy to criticize if one has never come face to face with a war experience. I have and I am forever indebted to the men & women who fought in the VN war. Thank you all.

Ridgefield, CT

Here's What I Wrote Last Week

As a viewer, I would give this film what one might call a mixed review. It succeeds in capturing the ethos and sense of exceptionalism that is so vital both to the individual Marine, to the individual combat unit, and the Corps as a whole. It is illuminating about the logic of its training and the transition from civilian to Marine. So there is value in sticking with it. I've always been kind of a push-over, myself, for both the image and reality of the Marines and the absolute value of such a specialized fighting force — along with the other branches, of course — in our democracy.

Friendly Fire

But as a documentary, this film falls well short, in my view, of what one would normally expect. I felt as though PBS was the willing victim of friendly fire from the producers and, especially, the funders on this one and didn't take any visible action to protect itself. This is really a very well done testimonial and recruiting film masquerading as a documentary.

There is essentially no critical assessment or voice anywhere in this film by outside experts who may have interesting and useful things to say about the Marines and their mission that challenges the relentless gung-ho theme of this presentation. Two widely respected journalists — Tom Ricks of The Washington Post and Rick Kaplan of The Atlantic Monthly — help greatly with perspective and context of the Corps in our society. But if you cough twice during this film — once during a sentence when the narrator refers to the mid-1970s when hundreds of drill instructors were punished for abusing recruits, and once when he says that, on occasion, the Corps' reputation has been tarnished — you will have missed the only attempts at introspection. The film builds towards an ending of camaraderie, sacrifice, just-the-kid-next-door quality, along with the music, that reminded me of the films I saw during World War II that made me misty-eyed as a youngster.

There is no questioning of leadership or whether it has failed at times, not much discussion of the strains of Vietnam, not even any mention of the murder charges brought just two months ago against four Marines for the killing of some two dozen Iraqi civilians, a case that illustrates both the enormous pressures of the kind of combat faced in Iraq and the seriousness with which the Marines take this event.

That this film is essentially devoid of any note of dissonance or even critical thinking or outside analysis should not be surprising if you hang in there through the credits.

The film is a co-production of WNED-TV in Buffalo, N.Y., and Driftwood Productions, Inc. The credits say, "Funding is provided by The Alfiero Family Charitable Foundation, which celebrates the National Museum of the Marine Corps and Marine Corps Heritage Center." In an online Q & A with John Grant, the station's program director, Grant says the idea originated within the station and, in this case, the idea "coincided with the interest of a funding source in Buffalo, so the Alfiero Family Foundation provided the initial production funding. Then PBS liked the idea for such a program and provided the remaining funding." Sal Alfiero, a successful businessman and philanthropist, served in the Marines from 1958 to 1967. He is listed as a major supporter of the new National Museum of the Marine Corps (which also was featured on a previous PBS nightly NewsHour program and ombudsman's column) and of "WNED's capital campaign for digital conversion."

The Defense Department's American Forces Information Service also put out a press release on Feb. 20 about "'The Marines,' a PBS documentary highlighting the history and heart of the smallest branch of the U.S. Armed Services."

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