Manhattan Project #39 A war we can’t win

(wherein news director Fred DeMarco debriefs Jed Berman on his time as an embedded journalist in Afghanistan and DeMarco discovers Jed’s full war record)

We spent the rest of the weekend walking and talking about my experience. I had already told Jane about pretty much everything that I got into in Afghanistan. She wanted to know more about my visit to the young Afghani’s father. I hadn’t told her I was going to do that before it happened. She told me now how proud she was that I did it. She’s a big believer in compassion and justice; it’s something she grew up with. Her parents were Quakers. They taught her that every human life is sacred, and that violence and war are simply wrong. I already told you she’s still an activist. Maybe she would have been anyway, just because of the kind of person she is. But that early training probably sealed the deal. Yet, even in her anti-war protesting and peacemaking, she and her friends don’t condemn the soldiers who do the fighting and killing. They tend to think like Penny Coleman that we really aren’t born to do that, and wouldn’t look for chances to do it, unless powerful people forced us to.

We talked about the young soldier’s father, who willingly sacrificed his son for a cause he believed in, belief grounded in his own religion, who was willing to give the lives of his other sons, if that’s what it took to regain control of their lives and their freedoms. And we talked about what I had done. She didn’t condemn me for doing it, but she also didn’t buy the explanation—she called it a rationalization—that I’d kicked around on the plane coming home. She said she understood the idea that the survival instinct was deeply woven into our evolutionary history. But she just couldn’t accept the idea that the most basic human drive, our bedrock choice of behavior, was aggression and killing. She admitted her thoughts were the product of what she’d been taught, but she said her intuition and her encounters with people over the years told her natural aggression just wasn’t the right answer. I’d told her long ago about my painful quest to understand why human beings have treated each other so horribly. As we walked along the trail by the Stillwater River, the glorious sunshine filtering down through the leafless branches of the hardwoods and the deep green needles of the pines, she put her arm around me and encouraged me not to give in to that old argument and keep searching for the real answer.

When I got to work on Monday, I headed straight to Fred’s office to debrief and make final plans for my special reports. The ratings period began on Wednesday, so we had a couple of days to get everything lined up and do some final editing on the pieces I’d brought home. But before we got into details, DeMarco wanted to talk big picture.

“You look okay, Jed. Actually you always sounded okay when you called in from over there. But, as they always tell us, war is hell. Did you come home banged up in the head?”

This was as touchy-feely as Fred DeMarco, the ex-monk, was ever going to get. I appreciated his awkward attempt at sensitivity.

“Do you mean, am I suffering from PTSD or something? No. I saw some pretty disturbing stuff over there, but I wasn’t there long enough and the going didn’t get nasty enough to leave any permanent scars. At least I don’t think so.”

I hadn’t told him about the incident with Tommy and Randy and the Afghani kid. And I wasn’t planning to mention it in any of my reports. He was satisfied with my response.

“Good. Let’s get to the big question: Is this whole thing over there going anywhere? Is it worth it?”

“You know I’ve been dreading that question since about the second day after I got there. I can’t really tell you if it’s worth it.”

That riled him a bit.

“What the fuck do you mean? You, an experienced journalist, just spent a month on the front lines of a war, and you can’t tell me whether we’re getting something out of this? Can you at least tell me if we’re accomplishing what we went there to do?”

I’d had lots of conversations like this with Fred over the years, so it didn’t feel like an attack or anything. It did annoy me a little that he was asking for answers I didn’t have.

“To be honest with you, Fred, I’m not sure I’ve ever been entirely clear on why we’re there. I mean, I know we went in there after the September 11th attacks, saying we wanted to track down and kill Osama bin Laden and stamp out Al Qaeda, but they didn’t manage to find him in the early going, they just hammered the Taliban and propped up someone friendly to the U.S. as the leader of the country. And by the time I got over there, the Taliban had actually fought its way back to controlling some pretty large chunks of the country again, especially in that area where we went looking for bin Laden in the first place. And it wasn’t obvious to me over there that our soldiers are entirely clear on what it is they’re really supposed to do now.”

Fred stood up and rubbed his hand over his smooth, bald head, and did his monk think with his hands in his belt.

“Jesus, Jed, we just spent thousands of dollars sending you over there to scope this thing out and find the answers to those exact questions. Why didn’t you get them?”

He was getting pretty worked up. I tried to lower the intensity level a little.

“Fred, I think we got some pretty darn good pieces by having a reporter over there. But there’s a very simple answer for why I didn’t come back with ultimate conclusions, and it points straight at the Department of Defense.”

He stopped pacing and turned toward me.

“I hope you’re not about to tell me what I think you’re going to tell me.”

“I’m not sure what you’re thinking, Fred, but here’s my explanation. The whole embedded journalist thing is to blame. What did I see over there? Who did I talk to? What could I take pictures of? Exactly what the Army said I could. Once you hook up with a unit and head out, you have no contact with the big picture. You see and hear only what they do. And they don’t want you to take pictures of all of that.”

“That firefight I told you about that we got into right before I left is a classic example. An American soldier died in that shootout, right beside me. And at least one Afghani; I saw his head splatter all over the rocks not more than a hundred feet from us. I had orders not to shoot any video of wounded Americans, but I could tape as many Taliban dead as I wanted to. Well, I shot both, and I’ll have a piece for you on that. And I don’t think it will upset the military if they see it, because like everything I brought back, it’s a one-sided report. I had no access to the Taliban leaders, only the American officers and soldiers. Like all the other stuff I brought home, it will only show the sacrifice and hardships our dedicated American troops go through in that dangerous place in service to their nation. I didn’t have a chance to talk to regular people over there to see what they think of all of this, at least not for the record. Actually, according to the rules, I wasn’t supposed to contact the locals at all. And if I couldn’t do that, if my world view was restricted to the little patch of earth where my unit was based and the mountain caves we searched looking for bad guys, how could I possibly come home with anything like big-picture conclusions about how the war is going or what we are actually accomplishing?”

DeMarco sat down and thought about what I’d said before he spoke again.
He kept rubbing his scalp.

“Well, that’s what I thought you were going to say, and I’m sorry to hear it. I had hoped that you—Jed Berman, intrepid reporter, find-the-truth-and-let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may—would figure out how to get around those rules and get the real story. I guess my hopes were in vain.”

Then he stopped rubbing his head and looked up at me.

“Let me go back to what you just said for a second. Did you say something about not talking to the locals on the record? Did you actually find a way to talk to them off the record? Do you have stuff the Army doesn’t know you have?”

Fred DeMarco is one good newsman. Gruff as he might appear, he is an excellent listener. I still wasn’t ready to cough up the whole story about the Afghani kid, but I decided to fill him in on part of my conversation with the kid’s father.

“After that day in the mountains, my unit paid a visit to a village one of the dead Taliban came from. It was pretty close to our camp. While the American officers were busy chatting up the village elders, looking to get them on our side, I talked to some villagers, including the dead soldier’s father. On our way out, one of our guys told me it looked like the tribal leaders were ready to get on board with the American side so they could get some of the aid we’re offering them, for schools and hospitals. But the dead kid’s father and his friends told me they steadfastly supported the Taliban and any forces willing to fight to get us out of their lives. They weren’t even close to joining up with us.”

Fred leaned back in his chair and exhaled slowly.

“So most of the stories you’re planning to do are basically rah-rah American troops stuff, right?”

I nodded.

“Well, we’re going to add another one. We’re going to tell our viewers everything we know about this war. How far can you go in a piece like that?”

“I can’t do what Walter Cronkite did after he toured Vietnam. I can’t go on the air and say we can’t win the war. But I can say there’s evidence that all the time and money and American blood spent on this conflict doesn’t appear be enough to win the hearts and minds of the people in Afghanistan. And American military leaders are still operating under some misconceptions about our relationship with the Afghani people, misconceptions that spell continuing danger for any U.S. troops sent over there to fight. That’s probably not going to make the military happy and it might upset some viewers. Do you want to take that risk?”

“In the interest of serious journalism, Jed, I think we have to. We’ll do all those other stories, too. I don’t have a problem recognizing the price our soldiers have paid in service to their country. But I won’t let this mind-control, censorious, embedded journalist trick prevent us from doing our job right.”

He slammed his fist down on the desk.

“That’ll be the last report in the series. We’ve been promising our viewers some really serious reporting. Let’s give it to them. So get to work.” He motioned me out the door and looked down at the papers on his desk.

So that’s exactly what we did. The first night I did a piece on hooking up with my unit in Kabul. Over the next couple of nights I did pieces on the Maine soldiers I had run into. Those ended with the young Mainers sending a special greeting to their families and their hometowns. Around the end of the first week of reports, we ran a piece on the fashion show in Kabul, to give people an idea how hard our troops worked at staying in touch with the life they’d always known and longed to return to as soon as they could. I did a piece on our trip from Kabul to Kandahar, with a lot of close-ups of the vehicles and weapons and the countryside we passed through on our way south. Toward the end, I did a couple of pieces on what it was like to be on patrol with my unit, including the day Tommy died. We warned people that it was pretty rough to watch before we ran it.

We got great response to all of the stories from the first night, a flood of emails and phone calls, tons of postings on our website. All of them pretty much the same thing—gratitude to the station for caring enough to go over there and bring home such great stories and applause for the American effort to stamp out terrorism and bring democracy to those backward places. Then we got one that was much more personal.

I was at my desk finishing up the final piece Fred told me to do, when he yelled for me to come to his office. When I walked in he had the station’s website up on the screen and had scrolled down to a viewer reaction that had been posted that morning. Fred pointed to the entry as I approached his desk. I assumed he wanted me to read it. It started off like all the others, then the writer added a shout-out just for me.

Hey, Jed!! Why so modest in the story about the patrols you went on? From what my cousin told me in an email, you did a lot more than tag along. He heard from another Maine soldier who was either out there with you or knew someone who was. Why didn’t you tell people you did your duty and helped our guys take out one of those nasty Taliban guys when they had you pinned down on that mountain trail? I’ve always been a fan, but when I read that you went right up to my top ten heroes list. Great going, Jed. You rock!

When I finished it, I looked at DeMarco, who had apparently been staring at me the whole time I was reading.

“So is this true? Have you been holding out on me since you got home? What happened?”

“Pretty much what he said, I guess. We were in this little crevice, in the middle of a firefight, when the kid next to me—the kid I mentioned in that patrol piece, Tommy—went down. After he was shot, he tried to hand me a rifle and begged me to kill the guy that got him. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be handling weapons, so I didn’t take the gun. I was pretty scared at the time. I started looking across the trail to see if I could spot the shooter in the rocks on the other side.”

DeMarco just kept staring at me. I really wasn’t sure what he was thinking. I knew what I was thinking: I can’t believe someone passed that story along until it followed me all the way to Bangor. And I felt a little sick; it wasn’t a memory I wanted to keep fresh in my mind. DeMarco nodded a little to keep me talking.

“I don’t know how this sounds, Fred. I wasn’t looking to break any rules or anything, but after a couple minutes of frantic searching, I spotted a Taliban guy raising his gun, and he was looking right at us. Tommy was balled up beside me moaning and stuff, and Randy, the guy on the other side was firing away, but not necessarily hitting anyone. When I spotted the guy across the way—I swear I did this without thinking, it was just a reflex—I leaned over to Randy and showed him where the guy was and he fired three shots and took him out. Some of that footage I had in the one patrol story was the Taliban soldier who probably shot Tommy and ended up dead because Randy and I spotted him and killed him. He was no more than fourteen years old. The guys in the unit were very happy with me, when Randy told them what I’d done. They even created a special medal for me and presented it to me the night before I left. I have it at home. I can bring it in if you want to see it. Anyway, that’s pretty much it.”

Fred sat there for a long moment, looking at the computer screen and then up at me and back at the screen again. Eventually he started rubbing his head and swiveled his chair back around to his desk. I moved back and sat down in front of him. Fred stopped rubbing his head, laced his fingers together and slid them down onto the fringe of gray hair in back.

“So what we have here is our very own war hero.” One of his very rare smiles slid across his face. His eyes brightened.

“That’s not a bad thing. I mean, I guess we can’t really put that in a promo, but we can leave that posting on the website and hope lots of people see it. The response to your series has been very strong, judging by the number of messages people have left us, which means we’re probably doing pretty damn good in the book. None of the other guys have anything to match us. Which means we might even win this round. That would be good for the station, and for me, and for you.”

He dropped his hands and shook his head slowly, and continued talking slowly, almost to himself.

“Well, well, well. I’ll be damned. I can admit it now. I really thought that in your heart you were some sort of pacifist or something. Anyone who tries to accuse you of that now is strictly out to lunch.”

He paused and smiled again.

“Jed, you never cease to surprise me. I can also admit—now—I had some doubts about taking you on here. That episode in the Midwest was truly strange. A lot of the people in the business wouldn’t touch you now if you paid ‘em. But you showed ‘em all.”

He stood up and extended his hand. I stayed in my chair, but let him shake my hand. He pulled me to my feet.

“Thank you, Jed, for doing the right thing. We’re still going to air your final piece, highlighting the uncertainty about the war. I think journalistic integrity demands it. And I think it will go over even better, as word of your war record gets around. Nice work, Jed.” He let go of my hand and sat down.

I stood there, not sure what I should do. Fred finally waved me out with a parting command.

“As you were, soldier. As you were.”

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