Monday, November 29, 2004

Blogging on the Ground in Iraq

For quite a while I've been following the work of freelance war correspondent Kevin Sites through his blog of a "life in conflict". Not being a huge fan of network news (care for a mix of tabloid and facile comment, with a dash of cult of personality?) I hadn't realized that he had been retained by NBC news to cover the assault on Fallujah. It was only when I happened to go in search of news on the killing of the wounded insurgent in the mosque that I found out that the reporter I admired so much was now in the center of a firestorm of controversy. As an embedded reporter with the 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines it was his camera who captured the shocking image of a Marine executing a wounded man that helped fuel the fire of Muslim anger over our actions in Iraq.

A week or so after the event, Kevin wrote his own account of that day and ruminated on the effect of the events both in the mosque and afterwards on his life and the lives of others. It is a sometimes harrowing, sometimes hard nosed, always thought provoking piece. I recommend that you read it at some stage. Here's an excerpt to try and catch your interest:

Open Letter to Devil Dogs of the 3.1

Since the shooting in the Mosque, I've been haunted that I have not been able to tell you directly what I saw or explain the process by which the world came to see it as well. As you know, I'm not some war zone tourist with a camera who doesn't understand that ugly things happen in combat. I've spent most of the last five years covering global conflict. But I have never in my career been a 'gotcha' reporter -- hoping for people to commit wrongdoings so I can catch them at it.

This week I've even been shocked to see myself painted as some kind of anti-war activist. Anyone who has seen my reporting on television or has read the dispatches on this website is fully aware of the lengths I've gone to play it straight down the middle -- not to become a tool of propaganda for the left or the right.

But I find myself a lightning rod for controversy in reporting what I saw occur in front of me, camera rolling.

It's time you to have the facts from me, in my own words, about what I saw -- without imposing on that Marine -- guilt or innocence or anything in between. I want you to read my account and make up your own minds about whether you think what I did was right or wrong. All the other armchair analysts don't mean a damn to me.

Here it goes.

It's Saturday morning and we're still at our strong point from the night before, a clearing between a set of buildings on the southern edge of the city. The advance has been swift, but pockets of resistance still exist. In fact, we're taking sniper fire from both the front and the rear.

Weapons Company uses its 81's (mortars) where they spot muzzle flashes. The tanks do some blasting of their own. By mid-morning, we're told we're moving north again. We'll be back clearing some of the area we passed yesterday. There are also reports that the mosque, where ten insurgents were killed and five wounded on Friday may have been re-occupied overnight.

I decide to leave you guys and pick up with one of the infantry squads as they move house-to-house back toward the mosque. (For their own privacy and protection I will not name or identify in any way, any of those I was traveling with during this incident.)

Many of the structures are empty of people -- but full of weapons. Outside one residence, a member of the squad lobs a frag grenade over the wall. Everyone piles in, including me.

While the Marines go into the house, I follow the flames caused by the grenade into the courtyard. When the smoke clears, I can see through my viewfinder that the fire is burning beside a large pile of anti-aircraft rounds.

I yell to the lieutenant that we need to move. Almost immediately after clearing out of the house, small explosions begin as the rounds cook off in the fire.

At that point, we hear the tanks firing their 240-machine guns into the mosque. There's radio chatter that insurgents inside could be shooting back. The tanks cease-fire and we file through a breach in the outer wall.

We hear gunshots from what seems to be coming from inside the mosque. A Marine from my squad yells, "Are there Marines in here?"

When we arrive at the front entrance, we see that another squad has already entered before us.

The lieutenant asks them, "Are there people inside?"

One of the Marines raises his hand signaling five.

"Did you shoot them," the lieutenant asks?

"Roger that, sir, " the same Marine responds.

"Were they armed?" The Marine just shrugs and we all move inside.

Immediately after going in, I see the same black plastic body bags spread around the mosque. The dead from the day before. But more surprising, I see the same five men that were wounded from Friday as well. It appears that one of them is now dead and three are bleeding to death from new gunshot wounds. The fifth is partially covered by a blanket and is in the same place and condition he was in on Friday, near a column. He has not been shot again. I look closely at both the dead and the wounded. There don't appear to be any weapons anywhere.

"These were the same wounded from yesterday," I say to the lieutenant. He takes a look around and goes outside the mosque with his radio operator to call in the situation to Battalion Forward HQ.

I see an old man in a red kaffiyeh lying against the back wall. Another is face down next to him, his hand on the old man's lap -- as if he were trying to take cover. I squat beside them, inches away and begin to videotape them. Then I notice that the blood coming from the old man's nose is bubbling. A sign he is still breathing. So is the man next to him.

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.
....Read the whole piece here.


Listmaker said...

oh well, at least the marine didn't make the guy he shot strip naked and pose in a human pyramid first.

Anonymous said...

I fear Dan that was only because Marines lack imagination