Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Truth Shall Make You Miserable

Darrin Mortenson of the North County Times, a source I've had occasion to quote before, believes that Kevin Sites, the NBC photographer who showed a Marine shooting a wounded Jihadi in a mosque, is caught between a rock and hard place.

And then the entire week of brutal fighting seemed to boil down to a single iconic image of a battle-weary Marine with a Marlboro hanging from his parched and broken lips. It said it all: true grit. The public cheered the image and no one complained about the wall-to-wall play the picture received around the world. ... And it was brought to us by ---- guess who? ---- an embedded reporter. But as soon as Sites' video aired Monday, many people were shouting to ban the embeds -- or worse. When I got to my Oceanside office Wednesday, the first phone message I retrieved was from an angry reader who said she was disturbed that -- in a follow-up article on Sites' Fallujah report -- I had called the slain Iraqi man a "fighter," and not a "chicken fighter."

Mortenson recalls his own experiences when he covered the earlier Marine battle for Fallujah.

Unofficially, while Marine public affairs officers who worked with Sites in Iraq have expressed support and have said he was just doing his job, they admit his report was probably a crushing blow to the morale of the men who'd witnessed and participated in so much horror and so much heroism over the last two weeks. Privately, many Marines said they knew Sites' relationship with the troops was doomed. According to reports from the field, Sites was last seen at the base camp near Fallujah eating alone in the chow hall, shunned by the Marines around him.

I could imagine it because, to some extent, Hayne and I sat in that same lonely seat when we covered the Marines in the spring. After entering Fallujah with a Marine platoon in late March, we witnessed a Marine sniper kill an unarmed Iraqi man who was standing on his roof talking on a cell phone. According to the Marines' rules of engagement that day, the troops could only shoot someone who was shooting at them. Even someone holding a rifle, if not raising it to fire, was off limits. I reported the killing matter-of-factly, without judgment, and definitely without wanting to damage the Marines' morale or reputation. It was war, I reasoned, and I included it as just one vignette in a story that otherwise detailed the Marines' courageous rush into battle.

Why I thought it was important enough to report was because of how the shooting -- whether the man was a legitimate military target or just an unfortunate casualty of war ---- had turned the entire neighborhood against the Marines. More than a hundred people had gathered outside the slain man's home. A nearby mosque blared condemnation and chants. Neighbors took up arms, and insurgents ended up chasing us out of town under fire. Neighbors on the other side of town said the "tribe" would have to get revenge for that man and the more than 20 other Iraqis who were reportedly killed or wounded that day. It was instructive: What we had witnessed and documented was how the insurgency grows -- something the military and folks at home seemed very uncomfortable hearing about.

... When the news is good, everyone hails those hardworking reporters who live in the dirt and danger to accompany the troops, as long as their reports make us feel good. But when the images make us uncomfortable or force us to ask questions, we blame the media. It's war. It's ugly. Believe me. War brings out the very best and the worst in men, especially when both sides claim they have God on their side and are therefore above reproach. Without passing judgment on that one Marine, Sites' footage was important for us to see. Marines quoted by The Boston Globe the day after the video aired said they had no trouble with the shooting in the blurred environment of Fallujah. "I would have shot the insurgent, too," said one sergeant. "Two shots to the head. "You can't trust these people," he said. "He did nothing wrong." If so, then why should Sites be damned for showing it?

Someone I cannot recall remarked that all men who have passed through great danger share the secret of shames no one has noticed or has pretended not to. Initiation is often marked by what is tacitcly kept quiet rather than what is described. It is what men do not say at reunions that marks the veteran. Many who repeat the shopworn phrase that 'there are no atheists in foxholes' only partially understand it. Men on the battlefield pray to God not so much because they want to survive, though there is certainly that; but also because they realize, better than any academic, how much men need forgiveness on every day of their lives.

I think Mortenson is right: we need the truth, however ugly. There is due process to protect the innocent from arbitrary punishment. But I also think that Morteson, Sites and everyone who can regard this calmly from a distance are lucky. They didn't have to pull the trigger and neither of them is a looking at a possible spell in Federal prison.


Kevin Sites adds considerable detail to the shooting of an Iraqi in a mosque by a Marine. Sites stops short of saying the shooting was improper, but maintains that it didn't seem right.

While I continue to tape, a Marine walks up to the other two bodies about fifteen feet away, but also lying against the same back wall. Then I hear him say this about one of the men: "He's fucking faking he's dead -- he's faking he's fucking dead." Through my viewfinder I can see him raise the muzzle of his rifle in the direction of the wounded Iraqi. There are no sudden movements, no reaching or lunging. However, the Marine could legitimately believe the man poses some kind of danger. Maybe he's going to cover him while another Marine searches for weapons. Instead, he pulls the trigger. There is a small splatter against the back wall and the man's leg slumps down. "Well he's dead now," says another Marine in the background.

During the course of these events, there was plenty of mitigating circumstances like the ones just mentioned and which I reported in my story. The Marine who fired the shot had reportedly been shot in the face himself the day before. I'm also well aware from many years as a war reporter that there have been times, especially in this conflict, when dead and wounded insurgents have been booby-trapped, even supposedly including an incident that happened just a block away from the mosque in which one Marine was killed and five others wounded. Again, a detail that was clearly stated in my television report. ...

In the particular circumstance I was reporting, it bothered me that the Marine didn't seem to consider the other insurgents a threat -- the one very obviously moving under the blanket, or even the two next to me that were still breathing. I can't know what was in the mind of that Marine. He is the only one who does. But observing all of this as an experienced war reporter who always bore in mind the dark perils of this conflict, even knowing the possibilities of mitigating circumstances -- it appeared to me very plainly that something was not right.

The really fascinating part of Site's account was how the video was subsequently handled.

I did not in any way feel like I had captured some kind of "prize" video. In fact, I was heartsick. Immediately after the mosque incident, I told the unit's commanding officer what had happened. I shared the video with him, and its impact rippled all the way up the chain of command. Marine commanders immediately pledged their cooperation. We all knew it was a complicated story, and if not handled responsibly, could have the potential to further inflame the volatile region. I offered to hold the tape until they had time to look into incident and begin an investigation -- providing me with information that would fill in some of the blanks. ...

When NBC aired the story 48-hours later, we did so in a way that attempted to highlight every possible mitigating issue for that Marine's actions. We wanted viewers to have a very clear understanding of the circumstances surrounding the fighting on that frontline. Many of our colleagues were just as responsible. Other foreign networks made different decisions, and because of that, I have become the conflicted conduit who has brought this to the world.

Here was a genuine dilemma. If the video was not suppressed entirely there would be no controlling its subsequent use, even if it were virtually certain that one of those uses would be enemy propaganda. All Sites could do was act within his own job description and proper lights. The alternative would be to keep the lid on it. Lyricist Tom Lehrer once satirzed Wehner von Braun's nomination to NASA despite his involvement with the V2 rocket:

Don't say that he's hypocritical
Say rather that he's apolitical
"Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down
That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun

It would be unfair to compare Sites to Von Braun and there is no intention to do so, but the dilemmas are superficially comparable. If the Marine's shooting must be viewed in context is there a similar context for shooting and releasing video? At what point does denying aid to the enemy become self-censorship and abetting a lie? At what point does legitimate combat on the battlefield become murder? Sites is explaining why he ought not be considered a traitor, but a man who in some sense was fulfilling his duty to the public. The Marine will be explaining why he ought not be sentenced to jail with the aid of a lawyer.