May 22, 2009

War journalism vs reporting on the military, Part One

Posted in Military matters tagged , , , , , , , at 10:31 am by Maggie Clark

War journalism has to be the toughest media gig around. You go out, you get the facts, you tell a very complex story as best you can. And then you have to sit on it. Or the censors get to it. Or your editor just tells you to take it down a notch. Why? Because if you’re too detailed — about intentions, about army locations — you put more lives at risk. Every day finding the balance between two difficult end-goals (telling the whole story, and doing as little harm in the process as possible) carries much greater risks than just about any other kind of news.

It’s not as though plain old local investigative reporting doesn’t come with its own risks: damaging an individual or a community’s reputation can have very dire consequences in and of itself. But in a war, on the ground, those consequences are much more immediate, and lie almost invariably in further casualties.

So it is as well with reports on the human element in war, as I referenced in relation to the late Canadian soldier, Major Michelle Mendez, dead of a self-inflicted injury late April — and as I find myself returning to in the case of American Sergeant John Russell, who opened fire two weeks ago in a stress clinic while stationed in Iraq, killing two attending medical officers, three patients, and injuring four others with a stolen gun. Sgt Russell had six weeks remaining on his third tour of Iraq; the stolen weapon came from a fellow soldier, who Sgt Russell violently assaulted some time after own had been removed.

For all these stories, whether they be about suicide, rape, vandalism, brutality and torture, corpse mutilation, unnecessary civilian casualties, or “friendly fire” incidents, anything that casts our own soldiers, or their allies, in a poor light during war time is immediately deemed a danger to their safety, either through internal morale issues or the provocation of heightened aggression from enemy combatants. And often this status leads to more delicacy, more omission, and more neglect in the realm of story updates.

This is a problem.

It’s a problem when incidents keep happening that, with or without the help of the media sphere, make it to the public consciousness — creating in their wake a mythology that, in its vagueness, ends up implicating the good right along with the bad. And after all the horrific military abuses that emerged during and after Bush’s presidency, I highly doubt further censorship, in the aim of keeping a damper on such rumours, would either be effective or without backlash. So what options are we left with?

The story of Sgt Russell had a news cycle of a scant two days; I’ve given it over a week, and no follow-up exists. To be fair, though, the media’s had its hands full in the last couple days especially, with the case of Steven D. Green, the “ex-soldier” who instigated the gang rape and murder of a 14 year old Iraqi girl, alongside the murders of her father, her mother, and her younger sister, while a private for Bravo Company, First Battalion, 502nd Infantry, Second Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division. This is too sick a case to refer to without more vile details, because the news broke just yesterday that Green is getting life in prison for his role in this heinous attack; he, along with four other soldiers implicated in this incident, will be up for parole in ten years:

New York Times — The March 2006 murders in Mahmudiya, 20 miles south of Baghdad, were so bloody that American and Iraqi authorities first thought they were the work of insurgents. The American soldiers were implicated after at least one acknowledged to fellow soldiers a role in the crimes.

At the time, the Iraq insurgency was near its violent apex, and American forces were suffering heavy casualties. Private Green’s unit, Bravo Company, First Battalion, 502nd Infantry, Second Brigade Combat Team of the 101st Airborne Division, was sent to a particularly violent area that soldiers called the Triangle of Death soon after arriving in Iraq in the fall of 2005.

The battalion quickly suffered casualties, including a sergeant close to Private Green. In December, Private Green, along with other members of his platoon, told an Army stress counselor that he wanted to take revenge on Iraqis, including civilians. The counselor labeled the unit “mission incapable” because of poor morale, high combat stress and anger over the deaths, and said it needed both stronger supervision and rest. It got neither, testimony at Mr. Green’s trial showed.

On March 11, 2006, after drinking Iraqi whiskey, Private Green and other soldiers manning a checkpoint decided to rape an Iraqi girl who lived nearby, according to testimony. Wearing civilian clothing, the soldiers broke into a house and raped Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. Soldiers in the group testified that Private Green killed the girl’s parents and a younger sister before raping and then shooting the girl in the head with the family’s own AK-47, which it had kept for self defense.”

Two things came to mind when I read this story: First, and most prominently, was the blatant labelling of Green as an “ex-soldier” in the headline: “Ex-Soldier Gets Life Sentence for Iraq Murders.” Well, yes, clearly the army would dishonourably discharge him after such an incident. I could see that getting a sentence or two inside the actual article. But as the primary fact in a headline about the heinous crime, its consequences, and the systemic mental health issues it brings yet again to the surface? Not on your life: Green was a soldier when he committed those acts — a soldier whose entire unit was deemed unfit for duty, and yet was left by its superiors without adequate resources for stress and grief management. The moment we veer from these facts, even for a second, we start shifting our attention from the continual immediacy of mental health issues on the ground in Iraq, and permit the build-up to more — more killings, more rapes, more suicides.

… Which leads me to the second thought this article prompted — a throwback to something I’d read last week in relation to Sgt Russell. “At a Senate hearing Tuesday,” ABC News reported, “Army Secretary Pete Geren and chief of staff Gen. George Casey diverged from a discussion of the Army’s budget to weigh in on what is being done for soldiers like Russell. … Casey said it isn’t true most soldiers suffer from post traumatic stress disorder following combat, instead making the point that ‘the vast majority of people that go to combat have a growth experience because they are exposed to something very, very difficult and they succeed.'”

Honestly, I don’t know quite how to take this argument: I’m sure there are plenty of people who cope perfectly with the taking of enemy lives, the knowledge of civilian casualties, children or otherwise, an awareness of the brutality wrought by others in their ranks, and exposure to the deaths or crippling injuries of their comrades. I’m just not entirely sure I’d be comfortable around them.

The fact is, war is not meant to be pretty, and it cannot be managed with the board-room efficiency of a business. Nor should it be: No amount of spin and rhetoric should ever take away from the importance of protecting human life, and the gravity of its loss in a time of war. Sadly, it looks very much as though each generation needs to live through a time of conflict before that lesson truly hits home.

And yet, surely we can do better. Surely there is a way, with all of the channels available to us today, to be better in our reporting. Better by our fellow civilians, who are represented to the world by the actions of our troops, and our public condemnation (or lack thereof) of any wrongdoing on the field. Better to the civilians whose lives we claim we’re trying to protect from insurgency and tyranny in the war zones we’re fighting in, by holding military abuses on their soil to higher account. And better still to the soldiers themselves, who for better or worse place themselves in the line of fire — external and internal, in the course of duty — in search of a better peace than the one we already know.

I think the road to this goal lies with a stronger division between war journalism and reporting on the military. But I also think this argument is one for another day — Monday, to be specific.

Today I just want to end off reflecting on the five lives ended by Sgt Russell, and the four, equally innocent, lives cut short by Ex-Private Green. How much future bloodshed could we ward off, I wonder, if we truly gave ourselves over to the solemn remembrance of all that’s come before?

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