Suppressing the Truths of War
A new documentary about war correspondents shows not only how hard it is for reporters to capture the real stories of conflict, but how hard it is for them to get those stories on air and in print.
Veteran war correspondent Joe Galloway has seen so much combat, it's hard to believe he's actually a civilian. After 22 years of reporting for United Press International and U.S. News & World Report from the front lines of every major American military engagement since Vietnam, Galloway doesn't hesitate to describe war as "the most devastating and stupid of all man's enterprises."Correspondents like Galloway have built careers on their shared conviction that democracy is degraded by a perceptual gap between the gruesome realities of war and the mainstream media's sanitized portrayal of it. The discrepancy between what journalists see on assignment and what their publishers approve for dissemination to the American public is the subject of Michael Samstag's new documentary, War & Truth, which chronicles the high-risk careers of embedded war correspondents from World War II to the present day.
Supplementing archival footage rescued from a military storage depot with the commentary of retired and active war correspondents, Samstag and producer Debbie Etchison reconstruct the details of war that so often don't make it back to the American people. Although Etchison's initial proposal was to construct an analysis of the embedding process, it became clear after the first round of interviews that subjects of the documentary had a very different story to tell, the story that has been scrupulously suppressed by the mainstream media.
"As we talked to more reporters, we learned that what they were seeing in Iraq wasn't getting back to the American public," Etchison said. "This went from being a film about the experience of being embedded to a film about the challenges these reporters face in actually getting the story out."
Even though the film's creative team refrains from editorializing, their cast of characters -- including Galloway, Combat Camera Officer Norman T. Hatch, Marine Corps General Drew Davis, and White House Correspondent Helen Thomas -- certainly puts forward a compelling agenda. As the documentary segues into coverage of the Iraq War, the interviewees express varying degrees of frustration and disenchantment with the mass media.
Many of the film's subjects are employees of well-established newspapers and broadcast networks, and as such they have profited from the exposure and credibility that prominent media outlets enjoy. But despite the benefits of their organizational affiliations -- without which correspondents would be forced to finance their own travels abroad -- many of them resent corporate efforts to manipulate the content of their stories. Samstag attempted to interview executives at the major news networks, including CNN, MSNBC, and FOX, but all of his requests were denied unceremoniously.
In making the film, it became apparent to Samstag that the agglomeration of independent networks into a few monolithic media giants has rendered the nominally "free" press a guardian of the status quo, both in the newsroom and on the Hill. "As more and more independent outlets are consolidated, their political interests become those of the organization's corporate leadership," Samstag said.
Combat photographer Warren Zinn, who traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq for the Army Times, is well aware of his publisher's preference for images that support the prognosis of a clean and imminent victory. However, this rosy idealization of the war effort bears little resemblance to the grotesque scenes that Zinn documented in Iraq. His photographs dismantle the dichotomy of friend and foe, showing that war victimizes allies, enemies -- and worst of all, civilians -- with the same indiscriminate ferocity.
Zinn knows that his employer will never publish these pictures, but that doesn't stop him from taking them. "Every photographer has a folder of pictures they know will never see the light of day," Zinn says in the film. "But people need to see those photographs. They need to be educated about war."
Samstag's documentary gives correspondents like Zinn a much-needed outlet for the images and stories that are considered too provocative for primetime: American soldiers collecting body parts in a roadside ditch and a dead Iraqi civilian slumped over in the front seat of a vehicle behind a windshield glazed with his own blood are just two of the photographs shown in the film. Zinn and his colleagues believe firmly that Americans cannot make informed decisions about the war without access to these images and stories that define it.
War & Truth is the culmination of four years of interviews, which Etchison said generated a seemingly infinite repository of material. "We kept thinking we were done, but then we would do another interview and uncover more opportunities to enrich the story," Etchison said. The production team conducted follow-up interviews with correspondents who have been covering the Iraq war since it began. The time lapses between sequential interviews demonstrate "a progression of attitudes among the reporters as they gained more perspective on the war," Etchison said.
Samstag said that keeping the documentary up to speed with the staggering human toll on the U.S. military became an emotionally taxing routine. "Every time we made a new cut we had to update the casualty count," he said. And the war has also been deadly for the journalists who document it. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 108 correspondents have been killed on duty in Iraq, more than the number killed in World War I and II combined.
Sig Christenson, who has been to Iraq five times for the San Antonio Express-News, sees his risky job as a moral obligation. "If war correspondents are not there to record history, the things that happened will never be told," he said in a phone interview. And a functional democracy, he believes, cannot be sustained in wartime unless the public debate is animated and driven by accurate reporting from the frontlines of battle. "Americans have a need to know the truth about war, not just a right to know the truth, so that they can decide whether they want it to continue or to end," he said.
In Samstag's opinion, some of the most truthful reporting has been generated by correspondents like Christenson who are employed by smaller newspapers, as well as independent freelance writers whose paychecks don't hinge on compliance with corporate interests. Unfortunately, as Christenson relates, freelancers are "playing a very risky game." "Iraq isn't a safe place for people with organizational backing, and it's a really unsafe place if you're out there on your own," he said.
Correspondents affiliated with a corporate behemoth like The New York Times Company have an obvious edge over freelancers in securing embed slots. "Unless you're an accredited journalist, the military is going to be very skeptical about someone just parachuting in and you're going to have a hard time convincing them that you're there on a legitimate journalistic mission," Christenson said. Furthermore, freelancers lack the body armor and bulletproof cars that the biggest bureaus provide for their top correspondents.
As Christenson knows from his own experience in combat, freelancers and contracted correspondents alike suffer many of the same psychological symptoms that soldiers do. "You never stop thinking about death, because the ways you can die are so many and so quick and so random. You can be in the Green Zone eating at the Subway, and then walk outside into the parking lot and be hit by a Katyusha missile," he said. But even though Christenson has been coping with post-traumatic stress since his return from Iraq this spring, he is already plying his editors with proposals for a sixth embedment. "I'd like to go back with the same unit and study how the surge was actually orchestrated," he said.
Despite his enthusiasm for the story, Christenson needs his employer's approval and funding to write it. The Express-News has given Christenson an unusual amount of leeway in his coverage of the war, but he knows that major judgment calls are reserved for the editorial board. "I'll make a pitch, but in the end it's not my decision," he said. Still, Christenson continues to report on Iraq, hoping that someday the version of war that his readership recognizes will bear more resemblance to the reality he has witnessed firsthand.
In his decades of reporting, Joe Galloway has seen many casualties of the "steep and costly learning curve" that separates the careful journalists from the dead ones. Many of these correspondents died documenting stories that the public would never see. Still, Galloway has spent his career getting ever closer to combat -- so close, in fact, that the Army awarded him a Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers under fire in Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley. Although he learned to negotiate the delicate line between civilian and soldier, Galloway "never lost sight of the fact that I was there as a reporter, acting as the eyes and ears of the people who read my dispatches." So it was with great disappointment that Galloway watched the major media outlets dissect and distort the content of those dispatches until a disingenuous version was finally released for popular consumption.
Ultimately, even the most dedicated war correspondents have to weigh the risks and rewards of their profession, and reporters like Joe Galloway make the decision to leave while they still can. "There I was, 64-years old and running up hills in Iraq behind 19-year-old marines," Galloway said of his most recent trip to Baghdad. "And I thought to myself, 'I gotta quit this stuff, because it is going to kill me. So I'm done with it," he said, with more than a hint of uncertainty, as if he was still trying to talk himself out of one last tour. "But the war goes on. It goes on and it has to be covered." War & Truth, which received the prize for best documentary at the Annapolis Film Festival in 2005, is available in stores and online at www.cinemalibrestudio.com.
Mara Revkin is an editorial intern at the Prospect.
© 2007 The American Prospect