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Faces of death (continued)

This is NOT to say that the Marine shouldnít 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 November 21, eight days after the shooting. Numerous reports have made clear Sitesís empathy for the troops with whom he has been embedded. Yet whatís 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 didnít know, sir ó I didnít 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 ó 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." And for those who would argue that Sites should have, well, lost the video, he had this to say: "Hiding this wouldnít 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 ó 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 US 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 Sitesís 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 theyíre going to frag this guy the next time he goes out, this Kevin Sites?" Frank replied, "It could happen. Thatís 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 Maldenís point of view isnít 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 Saferís South Vietnamese cameraman hadnít intervened. As described by David Halberstam in The Powers That Be, CBS executives were deeply unhappy when they saw Saferís story, knowing ó then as now ó 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 ó 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, itís 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 ó and, one fears, the dilemma now ó is that no matter how many battles we win, the war canít be won because itís based on false premises. How can we win a war that weíre 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 Armyís 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 whatís going on. The military invited him there with full awareness ó and I know, because Iíve spoken to many of the people involved with designing the program ó 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 donít have a bunch of loose cannons running around out there. And they can trust their people to deal with this. I donít 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. Thereís an investigation under way. The majority of people out there seem to understand the context in which this situation happened."

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Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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