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?


April 18, 2009

The Heart of the Matter: A Shifting Social Discourse

Posted in Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , , at 2:57 pm by Maggie Clark

A very important transition is occurring in North America, and I suspect it will still be another year or so until we grasp its full implications. Just a few weeks back, Chinese financial leaders suggested changing the world’s standard currency from the dollar to a global currency reserve, and UN economists have since backed this proposition. This move would mark a shift away from the U.S. as the source of global financial stability, and towards a preexisting global discourse that will at last be given its own voice, even if North American still plays a large role in the debate.

I suspect the same is very much true for socio-religious discourse: While George W. Bush was in office, the rise of right-wing Christianity in conjunction with the U.S.’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq launched a polemic debate between Christians and Muslims — a West meets Islam, “U.S.” vs. them affair. Moreover, the rise of a particular brand of Christianity — politically-motivated Evangelical Christians — created in its own right a series of related conflicts on the home front, such that Evangelical resistance to the theory of evolution in classrooms, global warming in government policy-making, expansive rights for women and the LGBT/IQQ community, and various issues pertaining to “morally acceptable” content on national airwaves garnered excesses of media attention and political sway.

Now, though the politically-motivated Evangelical Christian community still amounts to a sizable social force, the media portrays a very different, more long-standing socio-religious battle: the conflict between Israel and the Arab world.

In this ideological warfare, North America undoubtedly still plays a crucial role, but in the last few years this role has shifted from one of proactive engagement to one of passive response. The U.S. has always been deemed pro-Israel, regarding the country as a beacon of hope for stability and the eventual spread of democracy in the Middle East. However, the U.S. simultaneously relies upon strong business relations with nations in the Arab world, and to this end has equally supplied many such countries with arms, money, and the maintenance of dictatorships that suited U.S. interests. This has always made its involvement in the region self-motivated.

Post 9/11, that involvement necessitated a stronger alliance with those who would fight against U.S. enemies in Afghanistan; later, it also meant stronger alliances with those who would support Americans in Iraq. But times have changed. Immigration from the Arab world into Europe created stresses from which controversial national leaders and extreme anti-foreigner stances have emerged. The two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, once a viable discourse with its very own “road map” to peace, is no longer a welcome solution for many in the region. And here in North America, every political decision is becoming increasingly mired in questions of perceived Islamophobic, Zionist, anti-Semitic, pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli, anti-Palestinian, pro-terrorist, and anti-terrorist allegiances.

This is not by any stretch of the imagination to argue these terms weren’t bandied about before — of course they were. But what has been lost in recent months, from a socio-religious context, is a sense of North American values having any measure of relevance in the debate. Even terrorism is not being engaged as something feared again on home soil; rather, those terms, like their aforementioned brethren, time and again reroute discussion to the matter of the Middle East.

An excellent example of this arose quite recently, in the matter of George Galloway. Galloway is a five-time British MP expelled from the Labour party for extremely controversial comments made in response to Britain’s invasion of Iraq. He has toured Britain and the U.S., working with many causes: some clearly humanitarian, many others complicated by statements that have brought UN condemnation upon him, and actions that have blurred the lines between humanitarian aid and front organizations for personal gain. (I won’t make a habit of this, but there are so many controversies pertaining to his views, actions, and travels that I’m going to recommend reading his Wikipedia entry — no one mainstream article on the man comes anywhere near as close.) On March 20, 2009, he was denied entry into Canada, on the basis of his ties to Hamas: though he has gone on record stating that he does not agree with Hamas, Galloway gave the government $45,000. As Hamas is on Canada’s list of terrorist organizations, this was enough to deny him entry, though Canadian immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi’s comment on the issue is a little more dramatic than that:

The Telegraph — Immigration ministry spokesman Alykhan Velshi said the act was designed to protect Canadians from people who fund, support or engage in terrorism.

Mr Velshi said: “We’re going to uphold the law, not give special treatment to this infandous street-corner Cromwell who actually brags about giving ‘financial support’ to Hamas, a terrorist organisation banned in Canada.

“I’m sure Galloway has a large Rolodex of friends in regimes elsewhere in the world willing to roll out the red carpet for him. Canada, however, won’t be one of them.”

Galloway contested the ban, lost, but got around the ruling by being broadcast via video-link from New York to Canadian locations. And so life went on, with the news turning to “Tea Parties” in the U.S. and Canadian outrage towards the Afghani rape law. Yes, we have plenty of political matters to attend to at home; there is no shortage of issues. But the question posed by the high profile case of Galloway — to say nothing of audience reactions to North American portrayals of recent Israeli-Palestinian disputes and Somali pirates– remains: Which is the greatest? Not in the world at large, per se, as so many cultural wars are played out on that stage every day — but here, at home, in North America? Does our ultimate socio-political investment lie with home turfs, and all the multicultural challenges upon them, or quite literally with foreign lands, and the conflicts waged there instead? If the latter, does this tie our future directly to their outcome? What are the implications (not necessarily negative!) of a national discourse set primarily by the happenstance on foreign soil?