Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Prism of War

Michael Yon's Battle for Mosul (he is an author currently in Iraq) is an account of 25th ID operations in that city. His account begins with the end of the Second Battle of Falluja, in late 2004, when "displaced fighters streamed from their nests in Falluja, scuttled into hiding throughout Iraq, and began spreading the disease of violence. Many landed in Mosul." For a time, they rampaged through the city and at one point infiltrated a suicide bomber into an American base, killing 22. They didn't spare the civilians either, and after killing every policeman they could, started on the firemen.

Yon focuses his story on the 1/24 of 25 ID, the  1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment "Deuce Four". As they hunted down the enemy, the men of the 1/24th were aware the enemy was also seeking them, in particular aiming to ram car bombs, known as VIEDs, into their Stryker armored vehicles, capable of killing everyone aboard. Then Yon describes an incident of some historical interest, which I'll get to in a moment. While accompanying the battalion commander, LTC Erik Kurilla, on April 23, 2005, a large explosion was heard in the distance. A VBIED had succeeded in hitting a Stryker. He narrates:

We loaded the four Strykers, closed the ramps, and rolled. The attack site was three minutes away. ...  There might be follow-on suicide attacks, or IEDs planted on target, or perhaps dozens of insurgents with machine guns and rockets might be waiting to ambush us. ... Within minutes of our arrival, the men had wrestled out their severely injured friends and were climbing off the burning Stryker, separating into teams that shored up defensive positions while others scoured the area searching for other IEDs. ... Meanwhile, American sniper teams had found perches around the blast site, and Army attack helicopters circled low overhead, at times so close that I could practically see the patches on the pilots' uniforms ...

Just a few weeks earlier, when another of Kurilla's Strykers was hit by an SVBIED, a camera crew arrived on scene. As a man pumped an AK, an American sniper killed him, wounding the cameraman in the process. When it was later learned that the cameraman was a stringer for CBS who had close ties with the enemy, CBS apologized on the air.

Just as we pulled out, people arrived with cameras and began shooting footage of the scene. One of the men, whom we later learned was an Associated Press correspondent with known ties to the enemy, is dead now. The associate scavenging with him was seriously wounded.

As near as I can tell, Yon's reference to an event "a few weeks earier" is an incident described in the Guardian on April 7th involving a CBS photographer.

Reporters Sans Frontieres today called for an investigation after a freelance cameraman working for CBS in Iraq was shot by US troops who mistook his camera for a gun ... near the northern city of Mosul. It is the second time US forces have mistaken a camera for a weapon ... RSF called the shooting "unacceptable" and called for a "thorough and transparent investigation". "Once again the US forces have targeted a journalist just doing his job," the press freedom organisation said. "We again call on this same army to be more vigilant and discerning in order to avoid these unacceptable blunders." The cameraman (was hit) during an exchange of shots between Iraqi insurgents and members of the 1st brigade of the US 25th infantry division.

The "Deuce Four" is part of the 1st brigade of the 25 ID and it is more than likely that these two events are the same. The CBS cameraman was subsequently detained as a suspected insurgent according to the Associated Press.

BAGHDAD, Iraq Apr 8, 2005 — A cameraman carrying CBS press credentials was detained in Iraq earlier this week on suspicion of insurgent activity, the U.S. military said Friday. ... A spokesman for Task Force Freedom, Capt. Mark Walter, said the reporter suffered minor wounds and was with "a number of people" involved in the shootout. Walter said the reporter was detained immediately after the incident, in part because of statements from witnesses to the battle.

Correspondent Jim Stewart of CBS filed this followup story on April 8: "the military became suspicious when they examined the contents of the camera and found pictures of what appears to be the aftermath of four separate attacks by insurgents using IEDs, improvised explosive devices. The footage, taken so soon after the attacks, suggest the cameraman had to have foreknowledge that the attacks would take place, officials told Stewart."

Of all the incidents described in Yon's Battle for Mosul, the only incident which made the headline news for an extended period was the wounding and detention of the Associated Press photographer. The dramatic events related by Yon: the fights with the insurgents, the desperate rescues -- recede completely into the background in mainstream media stories. By a strange process of substitution what is merely a footnote in Yon's story, the account of the cameraman, becomes the staple of the wire news while the main events of Yon's story shrink to become footnotes in the newspaper coverage of the photographer's saga.

Every information consumer picks up a newspaper to learn the truth. But what is the truth in a situation where a story's message can so radically alter with the point of view? The existence of political 'bias' alone is an insufficient explanation because the conservative press just as gleefully dwelt on the CBS cameraman's dubious affiliations.  I can only think that objects and events viewed through the prism of the media are distorted in some fundamental way, so that the death of millions in Darfur can dwindle to insignificance while the "wardrobe malfunction" of a singer at a sporting event assumes the proportions of an international event. Nor are there any easy transformations one can apply to restore matters to their correct relative importance because it is hard to contemporaneously judge what really matters. The intelligence analyst's curse is that he rarely knows which of the myriad facts before him are the truly important ones. He has the consolation of knowing that everything will be 20/20 in hindsight. One of the attractions of reading history is discovering the truth long after it might have helped.