Faces of Death

It was a little more than two weeks ago that NBC News broadcast a piece of video from Fallujah that was both startling and sickening. U.S. Marines are seen walking into a mosque where several injured, unarmed Iraqi insurgents are lying on the floor. Although NBC censored the audio, we now know that one of the Marines excitedly said, "He's fucking faking he's dead. He's faking he's fucking dead." The Marine aims his rifle – and shoots the insurgent in the head.

For a few days, at least, the video clip – taken by freelance journalist Kevin Sites, a veteran war correspondent – seemed certain to become one of the signature images of the war in Iraq. And perhaps it will. An investigation is under way, and if and when the young Marine who pulled the trigger is publicly identified, the image may take its place in the pantheon of wartime horror. To this point, though, something odd has happened, or rather hasn't happened. Because so far, it seems, the clip is already fading from memory, and has not joined such terrible images as the torture photos from Abu Ghraib, or those of the American contractors who were butchered and mutilated in Fallujah a year and a half ago, or the heart-stopping photos of casualties, many of them civilian, on display at falluja.blogspot.com, or even the unseen but easily imagined execution of Margaret Hassan, killed in cold blood after a lifetime of helping the Iraqi people.

Why this should be is hard to say. But here's a guess: we know too much to let the clip stand alone, without context. In Susan Sontag's 2003 book on photography and war, "Regarding the Pain of Others," she writes that "to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. ... A photograph – or a filmed document available on television or the Internet – is judged a fake when it turns out to be deceiving the viewer about the scene it purports to depict." There was a time, perhaps, when Sontag's insight would have been regarded as a revelation. Today, though, it's commonplace. In introducing Sites's report on the Nov. 15 NBC Nightly News, anchorman Brian Williams said, "It illustrates how complex and confusing life can be on the front lines of this war," thus setting the stage for an ambiguous interpretation of video that appeared, on the surface, to be pretty unambiguous. Sites provided more context, reporting that American forces had been killed or injured by the booby-trapped bodies of dead insurgents, and that the Marine who shot the injured Iraqi had himself been shot in the face the day before.

Thus, rather than being cast as a symbol of all that's gone wrong in Iraq, the Marine has been treated almost as an object of pity. To be sure, that has not been universally the case. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both called for an investigation into whether the Marine may have committed a war crime. Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth, on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor, went so far as to say that "there is a prima facie war crime here that deserves court-martial." And yes, Arab news services such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, not to mention Web sites that spew flat-out propaganda on behalf of the Iraqi insurgency, have reportedly been showing the video constantly. But among the American media, even staunch anti-war critics have been subdued.

The reason, I suspect, is that Sontag's lesson was internalized a long time ago by a generation of Americans who grew up learning about atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam, who blamed young American soldiers for a failed and immoral policy, and who later realized they were pointing the finger in the wrong direction. What that young Marine did in Fallujah was horrifying. But it didn't take place in a vacuum. Rather, it took place in the midst of days upon days of street-to-street fighting, of exhaustion, of fear, of split-second decisions that could mean the difference between life and death. What happened in that mosque was a tragedy, but who among us could say that we wouldn't have done the same thing? The real tragedy is that a scared young man made a mistake, while there are no consequences for the far more serious mistakes committed by the likes of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, et al.

This is NOT to say that the Marine shouldn't be held accountable. What he did may not have been a war crime, and a court-martial seems pretty drastic for his spur-of-the-moment reaction to a potentially dangerous situation. (Indeed, according to the current U.S. News & World Report, unnamed Pentagon officials expect the Marine will be cleared of all charges.) But to argue that he should not be locked up in Leavenworth is not the same as saying that he did the right thing. Sites wrote a long, impassioned entry on his weblog, www.kevinsites.net, on Nov. 21, eight days after the shooting. Numerous reports have made clear Sites' empathy for the troops with whom he has been embedded. Yet what's been overlooked to some extent is the degree to which Sites, and those around him, understood that something had gone drastically wrong inside the mosque.

Sites wrote about the Marine coming up to him after the shooting and saying, "I didn't know, sir – I didn't know." Sites added, "The anger that seemed present just moments before turned to fear and dread." And he wrote that "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. According to Lt. Col. Bob Miller, the rules of engagement in Fallujah required soldiers or Marines to determine hostile intent before using deadly force. I was not watching from a hundred feet away. I was in the same room. Aside from breathing, I did not observe any movement at all." And for those who would argue that Sites should have, well, lost the video, he had this to say: "Hiding this wouldn't make it go away. There were other people in that room. What happened in that mosque would eventually come out. I would be faced with the fact that I had betrayed the truth as well as a life supposedly spent in pursuit of it."

These are the words of an honorable man pursuing an honorable course. Yet so twisted with rage are some of our so-called patriots that they have all but accused Sites of treason for telling the truth – the whole truth, complicated and contextual, explaining not just what the Marine did, but what he had been through before he did it. Sites makes it clear that the U.S. Marine Corps itself is anxious to find out what happened, to learn whether a breakdown in discipline and training had occurred that could place other Marines in danger. To some here at home, though, things look a lot simpler.

Take, for example, "Frank from Malden," who called The Howie Carr Show on WRKO Radio (AM 680) the day after Sites's report aired on NBC. Calling himself "a former Marine and very proud of it," Frank said, "I think this young gentleman should have got a medal for what he did." Then there was this: "I would think that the reporters in country should kind of be looking over their shoulder. Because if the reporters are going to put these kids in that situation, they may have some friendly fire there, you know?" An incredulous Carr asked, "What, do you think they're going to frag this guy the next time he goes out, this Kevin Sites?" Frank replied, "It could happen. That's the way it was. It could be again, you know?" Frank laughed and hung up. Carr seemed momentarily flustered; he then recovered and said that Sites "seems to be a real pro," and that he presumably could not have gotten his video out of Fallujah without military approval.

Yet Frank from Malden's point of view isn't all that unusual. In 1965, Morley Safer, then a young reporter for CBS News, accompanied some Marines to a group of Vietnamese villages known as Cam Ne. What Safer observed was the first televised American atrocity of the war. The Marines set fire to thatched huts, and threw hand grenades and fired flamethrowers down holes, killing the civilians who were cowering inside. It would have been even worse if Safer's South Vietnamese cameraman hadn't intervened. As described by David Halberstam in "The Powers That Be," CBS executives were deeply unhappy when they saw Safer's story, knowing – then as now – that they would be accused of being unpatriotic, of undermining the war effort, by putting the truth on the air. "They knew they had to go with it," Halberstam wrote. "It was not so much that they wanted to as that they simply could not fail to use it." And so they did. And so CBS president Frank Stanton was awakened the next day by a phone call from Lyndon Johnson, who told him, "Frank, this is your president, and yesterday your boys shat on the American flag."

As we all know, to this day you can still find reasonably bright people who believe that it was the media that lost the war in Vietnam – that the United States never lost a battle, but it lost the larger fight because the media undermined morale and dissipated support for the effort. Well, it's true enough that we never lost a battle in Vietnam; nor are we likely ever to lose a battle in Iraq. But the dilemma then – and, one fears, the dilemma now – is that no matter how many battles we win, the war can't be won because it's based on false premises. How can we win a war that we're fighting on behalf of people who hate us and who want us to leave their country? In any case, covering up the truth is hardly the solution, then or now.

"I feel very strongly that everything should be shown," says Jules Crittenden, a Boston Herald reporter who was embedded with the Army's Third Infantry Division in the spring of 2003. "In this particular case," Crittenden says of Sites, "he had a job which is very unambiguous. His job is to record what's going on. The military invited him there with full awareness – and I know, because I've spoken to many of the people involved with designing the program – that the embed will produce good, bad, and ugly. The military, in establishing this program, understood that there are going to be some bad days. I think they have always expressed a great deal of faith in the professionalism and fundamental goodness of American soldiers. You don't have a bunch of loose cannons running around out there. And they can trust their people to deal with this. I don't think that sense of trust that the military has on their own part or the trust of the American people has been violated by this incident. There's an investigation under way. The majority of people out there seem to understand the context in which this situation happened."

Context is vital, but it can also change, and it's never complete because everything can't be included. Another moment from Vietnam: in 1968, Eddie Adams photographed South Vietnamese general Nguyen Ngoc Loan at the very instant that he executed a Viet Cong fighter with one bullet to the head. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo, which seemed to encompass all the insanity and immorality of that war. Yet Adams, who died earlier this year, later came to see it quite differently. He got to know General Loan, and realized that the execution was perfectly justified; and he regretted that Loan's life was made much more difficult because of that infamous image.

"Photographs, you know, they're half-truths, you know, that's only one side," Adams told National Public Radio in 1998, shortly after Loan's death. "It's just a sad statement, you know, I think of America. He was fighting our war, not their war, our war, and ... all the blame is on this guy. I got to know him pretty well. I talked to him the last time about six months ago. He was very sick, you know, he had cancer for a while. And I talked to him on the phone, and I wanted to try to do something, explaining everything and how the photograph destroyed his life, and he just wanted to try to forget it. He said let it go. And I just didn't want him to go out this way."

I asked Dirck Halstead, himself a former war photographer and an acquaintance of Adams, whether he could draw an analogy between Adams' experience and Sites'. Halstead, now the editor and publisher of a magazine called the Digital Journalist, responded by e-mail. "In general, photojournalists are like cops. They have pledged themselves to always do the right, ethical thing. However, we all have heard of countless police officers who have become traumatized as a result of having to shoot someone in the line of duty. Unfortunately, this comes with the turf," Halstead told me. "Kevin Sites was covering a battle, as a pool embed. His job was to record what was going on. He was as surprised as Adams was by what happened. He also, obviously, was conflicted and confused by what he had just shot. ... He clearly has bonded with the men he has been covering. This happened with most of the pool reporters and photojournalists who have covered the war. This makes it even more difficult, since he obviously feels he let his comrades down. But he has to keep in mind why he was there, and what his job was. I feel for him and want to express to him my respect for a job well done."

Adams only learned of the broader context of Nguyen Ngoc Loan's life later, after his photo had been seen around the world. Sites tried to offer what context he could in his original report – the exhaustion, the fear, the booby-trapped bodies, the death that lurked around every corner. But a photographer can, at best, help tell the story of what's happening just outside the range of the viewfinder. The broader context – the broadest context – remains elusive. On Nov. 17, NPR's Melissa Block interviewed an Al-Jazeera spokesman, Jihad Ali Ballout. The subject: why Al-Jazeera was running Sites' video on an almost-continuous loop, whereas it refused to show the execution of Margaret Hassan, a video that network officials have admitted is in their possession. Ballout told Block that "these atrocities of killing innocent people, especially people such as the late Mrs. Hassan, was really an outrage. There is a difference between that and when there is a whole army of 20,000 military people converging on an area in Fallujah." Block responded by asking whether Al-Jazeera was using a "double standard" in showing the Sites video but not the Hassan execution. Ballout didn't really have an answer.

Now, of course, the Hassan execution does not balance off the Fallujah mosque incident in any way, and the moral equation is complex. On the one hand, what happened to Hassan does not somehow justify the misbegotten war in which we are now embroiled. On the other hand, it is useful to remind ourselves – and it is obviously useful for the Arab world to remind itself – that what the Sites video documents is not the moral equivalent of shooting Margaret Hassan in the head. One was a split-second reaction to a confusing, possibly deadly situation. The other was an act of terror in the most literal sense – that is, it was the taking of an innocent life solely for the purpose of spreading terror. One was a tragic mistake. The other was pure evil. But though we should surely see both – as well as the bodies of the civilians who have died or been maimed by our arrogant act of liberation, as well as the beheadings and the Abu Ghraib images and everything else – we travel down a dangerous road when we use these images to try to justify. At best, they help us to understand, however imperfectly.

"The meaning of these pictures is not embedded in the video itself. What people think about this video is going to depend on what they think about the war," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

Bob Zelnick, who chairs Boston University's journalism department, and who is a former war correspondent for ABC News, praises in-depth reportage, such as Dexter Filkins' Nov. 21 New York Times article on accompanying U.S. troops in Fallujah, for educating the public about the terrible consequences of urban warfare. "There has been a realistic picture presented of what these guys are up against," he says. "You read that stuff and you can understand what's going on over there, why anybody would pull the trigger first and ask questions later. Human beings have the blessed ability to make distinctions. We can distinguish between Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. The reason we can do that is because of good reporting in each case."

The problem – the tragedy, really – is that though the images tell us much about the way the war is being conducted, they tell us little about the wisdom of the war, or even its ultimate cost. It says much about this war that we can see pictures of a Marine killing a wounded insurgent, of Iraqi inmates being tortured, and of atrocities committed against Americans and other Westerners by terrorists, yet we cannot see the flag-draped coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. That – as well as the additional suffering we've inflicted on the already-long-suffering people of Iraq – is the ultimate context.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.