Monday, November 22, 2004

The First Casualty of War

My good friend Mary emailed me an article from the New York Times in which the cameraman who filmed the shooting in Fallujah is interviewd. I presume it was in response to my previous post on the Marine involved in the shooting. I adore Mary, she's a good friend, but we do not see eye to eye on everything. Nonetheless, I felt it only fair to give another viewpoint consideration. The article is sad, and thought provoking, but ultimately does not change my perception that this young Marine is being treated as a scapegoat and that the incident is being blown way out of proportion. To explain why, I shall add my responses to the article in italics:

Captives: Cameraman Details Marine's Role in Mosque Shooting

November 22, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Nov. 21 - A marine who appears to shoot and kill an unarmed and wounded Iraqi prisoner in an NBC News video was not aware that the incident was being recorded, and moments later approached the cameraman with seemingly remorseful words - "I didn't know, sir, I didn't know" - according to the first public description of the events by the cameraman, Kevin Sites, since his brief and somewhat ambiguous initial report.

Now, at first this seems pretty damning. But I began to wonder -- did the Marine specifically say he didn't know he was being filmed, or was he referring to something else? Bear that in mind as the article continues.

No weapons were visible inside the Falluja mosque where the shooting took place, on Nov. 13, and the wounded Iraqi made no sudden or threatening moves before the marine shot him, Mr. Sites writes on his Web site,, in an entry posted Sunday night.

By whose definition or criteria is Mr. Sites judging the threat present or absent in the terrorists actions? Again, bear this question in mind as we continue.

Mr. Sites, a freelance photojournalist who had been hired by NBC News, made it clear that as a veteran of covering wars around the globe, he understood the ugliness and
complexity of battle. Nevertheless, he said of the incident in the mosque, "it appeared to me very plainly that something was not right."

Not to detract from Mr. Sites' credentials as a war correspondent, but that's a far cry from being a war fighter. What he sees and how he interprets it is different from the man who actually must make the decision to kill or not.

His account also raises new questions about another group of marines who entered the mosque just before Mr. Sites and fired on the prisoners - they had been left there, already wounded, after a battle the day before. Mr. Sites was so surprised that the prisoners he had seen there the day before had been attacked again that he informed a Marine lieutenant of the fact before the final shooting - the one he captured on tape - took place.

The video obtained by Mr. Sites has received sensational play around the world, particularly in the Arab news media.

Mr. Sites calls the posting on his Web log an "Open Letter to the Devil Dogs of the 3.1," or the Third Battalion, First Marines. "Since the shooting in the mosque, I've beenhaunted that I have not been able to tell you directly what I saw," he wrote, "or explain the process by which the world came to see them as well."

He begins by writing, "I'm not some war zone tourist with a camera who doesn't understand that ugly things happen in combat." [neither are you a soldier who actually has to make a decision on the split second, but someone who can record events, then judge them in hindsight.] Despite his attempt to be fair, he said, since then Falluja video was broadcast on Nov. 15, he has been "shocked to see myself painted as some kind of antiwar activist." Mr. Sites has received abuse and death threats on some Web sites, and has shut down the discussion section of his own.

He said the marines he was embedded with arrived at the mosque on Nov. 13, and after a series of other events, he heard shooting inside. The other set of marines emerged and were asked by a lieutenant, "Did you shoot them?"

What other events? Do they have any relevance to what happened next? And if so, why is the Times less descriptive of them than of the antecedent events within the mosque? I have long been skeptical of the NYT's journalistic dispassion, and I am disinclined to believe they are giving both sides of the story equal treatment.

"Roger that, sir," a marine responded. But when the lieutenant asked, "Were they armed?" the marine just shrugged, Mr. Sites wrote.

Inside, Mr. Sites said he was was surprised to see the wounded men from the battle the day before, now shot again. "There don't appear to be any weapons anywhere," he wrote.

And just how close an inspection was he able to make in the heat of battle? Or is this just his impression?

He was videotaping some of the wounded men when, in the background, a marine yelled that one of the others was "faking he's dead."

"Through my viewfinder I can see him raise the muzzle of the his rifle in the direction of the wounded Iraqi," Mr. Sites wrote. "There are no sudden movements, no reaching or lunging."

It doesn't take a lunge or much of a reach to pull the pin on a grenade. That has happened over there. Again, the question of experiencial perspective and definition of "threatening" are key here. The Marine had an extremely limited amount of time in which to react, in which to make a life or death decision. Had he hesitated and the man truly been a threat, it might very well have been that Marine, his buddies, even Mr. Sites. I dare Mr. Sites to state he could have made the decision any better had roles been exchanged.

Then the marine fired. "There is a small spatter against the back wall and the man's leg slumps down," Mr. Sites wrote, in what was apparently a suggestion that the man had been alive.

"Well," another marine said, "he's dead now."

Mr. Sites wrote that he could feel "the deep pit of my stomach." The marine who fired, who had been angrily shouting, suddenly changed his tone.

"The anger that seemed present just moments before turned to fear and dread," Mr. Sites wrote.

I should think so. That's pretty common after battle, from what I have been taught. Furthermore, if, as Mr. Sites claims, the Iraqi wasn't a threat, and the Marine only realized this after the shooting was over, you can be sure he would feel remorse.

Furthermore, might this realization also explain the Marines comment, "I didn't know, sir, I didn't know" much better than the assumption that he was referring to the presence of the camera?

"I can't know what was in the mind of the marine," he wrote. "He is the only one who does."

This is true. And this is why those of us who have not had to bear the burden of uniform would do well to be circumspect in our criticism. If the Marine is proven to have violated the UCMJ or the ROE's, he will be disciplined. I for one am glad that those responsible for executing such discipline have a fuller perspective on events than I.


Blogfather Rusty is not as understanding towards Sites as I.

No comments:

Post a Comment