Thursday, April 2, 2009

War in context

How one sees war has a great deal to do with perspective and distance. For soldiers it is seldom a choice, but a result of tasking and job speciality. There are a multitude of experiences never documented, leaving those back home to rely on the journalists to capture the moments and connect us to the broad range of events that constitute the genre of conflict.

As I look over photos from wars past, I am struck by one that stands out among all the rest.  A photo by the man who mentored me, David Leeson. It is not about death, or the rage that engulfs the onslaught of battles, but about a human moment within the context of a world turned upside down. It is a photo of three soldiers jumping into a pond, captured with the skill that only years of photography can yield. It is a moment that connects us all to the common humanity which we all share. The juxtaposition being the days of steady fighting that defined the early days of the second invasion of Iraq.

Yesterday, I was told that CNN had established a new news bureau here in Kabul, relocating from Iraq as that war has begun tapering off. According to an unidentified source here in Kabul, the CNN bureau has notified the Army that it will only cover kinetic, or direct action operations; that it will not provide any coverage for humanitarian or reconstruction efforts. It was added that their position is what CNN's viewers demand. I wonder? Or is it a case of the giant imposing its will.

Opinions are shaped to a large degree on what is available to see and read. If CNN holds to its position of only reporting on kinetic actions by the military, how will that shape the public's perception of this war. Afghanistan is many things, and as a counter-insurgency fight, the humanitarian mission is an essential part of core strategy. It should be the responsibility of journalists to present that context to encourage debate, rather than steer a way of thinking or shape an outcome. One thing is for certain, coverage focused on kinetic military operations draws viewers, and viewers translate to advertising dollars.

Between May 2006 and May 2007, I was one of the few American journalists embedded with the US Army. Now that the interest in Afghanistan has been reforged, a product of President Obama's campaign, journalists are flocking here in droves. There is a two month back log of embed applications for parts for the country with an ability to move around that remains challenging at best. So what is behind the recent increase? Where was the coverage in past few years? Was Iraq really more news worthy than Afghanistan? The soldiers that were here didn't think so. In the Summer of 2006 there were over 60 ramp ceremonies alone; a solemn tribute to the fallen before they are sent home. I attended more than I care to remember, but found myself wondering how that war, was any less important than the war in Iraq.

Whatever the motive for the latest surge in media focus, it should remain the intent to tell the stories of war within context. War is not one thing, but a mixing of the best and the worst and all things in between. Afghanistan is all of that. Let's hope that the stories that are told create the balanced picture that is deserved.


  1. Well, I guess the kinetics-only coverage would fit the "if it bleeds, it leads" mantra. I second your hopes for a balanced picture.

  2. Thanks Scott. I agree. In fact, my agreement began years ago. My news judgment has been finely tuned over the last 30 years in photojournalism and documentary film.

    I learned through the years to be wary of the word - newsworthy. All too often the first half of the word - "news," is in conflict with the second half - "worthy." One could argue that the cart is often placed ahead of the cart when news organizations choose what will make the front page or top half of the evening news.

    Let's hope for the sake of all things "worthy" news organizations discover it before they've lost their last subscriber.

    Until then - thankfully we've got folks like you doing your best to keep that horse in front of the cart.

  3. I too am hoping for a balanced picture but judging by the reportage of the Iraq war I'm not holding my breath. If there's going to be balanced reporting it will come from you, Michael Yon and the folks at Hopefully some others will join in.

    Stay as safe as you can in Afghanistan and thanks for what you're doing.

  4. I agree with Membrain. Yon will be arriving in AFG soon, and along with you, Scott, that will likely be the best coverage of what's truly going on in AFG.

    Look forward to your dispatches.

    Stay safe

  5. Unfortunately, CNN is in the business of making money, not informing viewers. If you want a truly balanced picture, try getting your news from multiple international sources. I'm sure Al-Jazeera will report something that the American media would rather keep quiet '-)