As The Sun Burned Down The West

Via Romenesko, one of the most bullshit-free — and most moving — things I’ve read about this war.

Kevin Sites is the pool reporter who shot the footage of a Marine killing a wounded Iraqi inside a mosque. Embedded with the “Devil Dogs of the 3.1,” as he calls them, he went with them into the mosque expecting some routine tape he could feed back to the reporters waiting for background film. What he got was something else:

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.

I am still rolling. I feel the deep pit of my stomach. The Marine then abruptly turns away and strides away, right past the fifth wounded insurgent lying next to a column. He is very much alive and peering from his blanket. He is moving, even trying to talk. But for some reason, it seems he did not pose the same apparent “danger” as the other man — though he may have been more capable of hiding a weapon or explosive beneath his blanket.

But then two other marines in the room raise their weapons as the man tries to talk.

For a moment, I’m paralyzed still taping with the old man in the foreground. I get up after a beat and tell the Marines again, what I had told the lieutenant — that this man — all of these wounded men — were the same ones from yesterday. That they had been disarmed treated and left here.

At that point the Marine who fired the shot became aware that I was in the room. He came up to me and said, “I didn’t know sir-I didn’t know.” The anger that seemed present just moments before turned to fear and dread.

This is his open letter to the men who took him under their wing, the people he depended on both for access and to keep him alive. It’s an incredibly vivid explanation of the feelings of people who are risking their lives to tell us what’s going on over there. The embedded journos got a rap hereabouts as shills for the units they were travelling with. But in some cases — Sites, Rick Atkinson at the Washington Post — they turned their assignments into rare chances to describe their surroundings as well as report what they were told, and the result was a picture maybe we all didn’t want to see, maybe we disagreed with, but it was a clear picture nonetheless.

But 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 Falluja 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.

Making sure you know the basis for my choices after the incident is as important to me as knowing how the incident went down. I did not in any way feel like I had captured some kind of “prize” video. In fact, I was heartsick. Immediately after the mosque incident, I told the unit’s commanding officer what had happened. I shared the video with him, and its impact rippled all the way up the chain of command. Marine commanders immediately pledged their cooperation.

After reading this, I’m grateful to Sites for demolishing a commonly held misconception about journalists: that they’re all just craving bloody mayhem because it gets them hot. That they want the worst to happen so that they can somehow “cash in” on it or use it to further an agenda. Yes, some of them are like that. Some of them are odious mouthpieces or cheerleaders or worse. But the best of them do what Sites did: They just go. At great risk to themselves they go and look around and tell us what they see. We draw our own conclusions.

For those who don’t practice journalism as a profession, it may be difficult to understand why we must report stories like this at all — especially if they seem to be aberrations, and not representative of the behavior or character of an organization as a whole.

The answer is not an easy one.

In war, as in life, there are plenty of opportunities to see the full spectrum of good and evil that people are capable of. As journalists, it is our job is to report both — though neither may be fully representative of those people on whom we’re reporting. For example, acts of selfless heroism are likely to be as unique to a group as the darker deeds. But our coverage of these unique events, combined with the larger perspective – will allow the truth of that situation, in all of its complexities, to begin to emerge. That doesn’t make the decision to report events like this one any easier. It has, for me, led to an agonizing struggle — the proverbial long, dark night of the soul.

I knew NBC would be responsible with the footage. But there were complications. We were part of a video “pool” in Falluja, and that obligated us to share all of our footage with other networks. I had no idea how our other “pool” partners might use the footage. I considered not feeding the tape to the pool — or even, for a moment, destroying it. But that thought created the same pit in my stomach that witnessing the shooting had. It felt wrong. 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 truth as well as a life supposedly spent in pursuit of it.

And the conclusions we draw from footage like that Sites brought back tells us more, much more, about ourselves than it does about him. Threatening his life, as some freepi did recently, only reveals the depth of their biases, shows how shallow their belief in this war really is. Read that whole letter, and tell me that is a man who does not understand the consequences of his actions, the risk inherent in his task in Iraq. Read that letter, and tell me, that Kevin Sites is anything less than a man doing the best job he can, as the world burns down around him.