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Assignment America: Where is Ernie Pyle?

By JOHN BLOOM   |   Jan. 2, 2002 at 3:43 PM   |   Comments

NEW YORK, Jan. 2 (UPI) -- Where's Ernie Pyle? Where's A.J. Liebling? Where's the guy in the khaki flak jacket with buttons on his pockets, going where all other reporters fear to venture, bringing us human-interest prose that gnaws at our conscience? Where's the old-fashioned war correspondent who's constantly telling the Pentagon, "That's not exactly what I witnessed"? Where's the interview with the shell-shocked peasant, the grim description of the bombed-out mosque, the visit to the hospital ward where nurses are donating their own blood?

We know these things exist. We've had glimpses of them here and there, mostly from the British press and al Jazeera. But most of the Americans have remained rooted to their studio swivel chairs and bunkered in their well-guarded Kabul hotel rooms, content to comment on official briefings and study silent military footage of bomb explosions that could be anywhere. Was that a training camp? A village? A hospital? We may never know, because this has been the most antiseptic war coverage since ... well, since the Persian Gulf War.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm the type who believes the press, righteous war or not, ought to always be second-guessing the government.

Unfortunately the tradition of hitting the ground running, surveying the carnage, and following up with the survivors seems quaintly out of date in our over-technologized press world.

For the first month of the war, we had an excuse. The country was held by the Taliban and all foreign reporters were barred. (Some of them went in anyway. No Americans, though.) But after the fall of Kabul, the country was wide open. Journalists from Taiwan, New Zealand, Canada, France, Pakistan, Indonesia, Russia and Germany fanned out across the country -- and those are just the ones I could identify. If you read their reports, you start to have a grim familiarity with obscure villages like Zani Khail, where 28 died. Mashikhel, where 10 died -- four while sitting in the Saqawa mosque. Chukar, where 93 died, including 25 who tried to flee the city in a trailer pulled by a tractor after the first attack but were targeted by a second plane.

These are civilians I'm talking about, and there aren't just two or three of these stories. As the wounded make their way to hospitals along the Pakistani border, there are fresh ones every day. The Pentagon dismisses most of them as propaganda. But what gives them credence is that many of the villagers live near what are almost military targets.

Karam, where a dozen died, is a village next to an al Qaida camp that was abandoned years ago. (Did the Russians have it on an old map?) The village of Naza was the home of Taliban commander Maulvi Taha, but he was not there and the bombs destroyed 25 houses and killed 40 civilians (counting other villages nearby). A man named Haji Khyal Khan lost five family members. In the most notorious military mistake -- in the foreign press, not ours -- a bomb hit a mosque and madrassa in Khost, killing 34, many of them students under the age of 15.

When a bombing mistake is big enough, it does come up at the daily press conference. (The small ones don't even make it into the papers.) And the Pentagon's response is always the same: "We cannot independently verify those casualties."

Why not? They have troops on the ground. They can be there in five minutes. It's ironic that a nation sending humanitarian aid to parts of Afghanistan where there are no bombs wouldn't bother to go in after a mistake and helicopter some of the civilians to field hospitals. It's at least a question I would like to hear asked by some reporter somewhere.

Victoria Clarke, the Pentagon press spokeswoman, was asked to respond to a Taliban statement that at least 1,000 civilians had died by the end of October. "Completely outrageous," was her reply.

Two months later, it doesn't seem like such an outrageous statistic. Five years from now someone will write a book about this war -- let's hope it's someone like David Halberstam, who always seems to ferret his way down to the nitty gritty -- and he'll win the Pulitzer Prize for describing the byzantine backstage politics, the "smart-bomb" targeting confusion, and the cowed press that didn't ask the simplest of questions.

I'll take just one example. You can read an account of the same bombing run in an American newspaper and in the European or moderate Arab press. If the Americans describe the target as an "al Qaida facility," it's almost always described overseas as "a house."

The Pentagon said from day one of the war that "Afghanistan is not a target-rich nation," but somehow they've found thousands of targets, many of them homes. Inevitably the al Qaida leader who's supposed to live there is not at home. Inevitably his family is. Perhaps the Pentagon has made a decision that "acceptable collateral damage" includes the relatives of enemy leaders, but if so, they should at least be asked to say so. Would you not expect civilians to be in a residence? "Do you target houses?" would be the question. The answer, of course, would be, "We don't discuss targets."

That leaves the handful of reporters on the ground to visit the recently bombed village and find out where the target was, who was the intended victim, and how many died because the intended victim was somewhere else.

One of the very first targets in the war was a house -- the house of Mullah Omar. Of course, he was not home. That didn't do any good for his teenaged fourth wife, his 10-year-old son, his nine-year-old daughter, his sister-in-law, her two daughters, her son-in-law, and Omar's aged stepfather, all of whom died. If nothing else this was a human interest story. How mad do you think he was after that? But it only received passing references in the American press, and there was no follow up. I've never even seen a description of what the once luxurious house looked like after the bombing.

For "collateral damage" to show up on the media radar, it has to be an enormous tactical and political mistake. Such is the bombing of the convoy a week ago near the village of Asmani Kilai, in the province of Paktia. The Pentagon insists, even after a week of evidence to the contrary, that it was a group of al Qaida soldiers attempting to escape. The villagers insist it was a convoy of tribal elders from Khost, traveling to Kabul for the inauguration of Hamid Karzai. Of the 65 dead in the seven hours of bombing, only 15 were actually in the convoy. The other 50 were villagers -- innocent bystanders who happened to live near the place on the road where the convoy was attacked. Increasing it looks like all 65 were innocents, sent to their death by a pro-American tribal leader with a cell phone who wanted to settle an old score. Meanwhile Asmani Kilai is rubble.

Everyone understands that mistakes happen in war. Most people don't want to think about it. They don't want to know that the Jalaladin mosque in Khost was bombed, that a family of six was killed in Mashikhel, that the Taliban base near Shamshad Ghar was no longer there but that villagers had moved into some of the dwellings, that the village of Chokar Karez lost 50 civilians to an American bomb, that a senior citizens home near Herat was destroyed when the intended target was a military hospital. (Another Frequently Unasked Question: Wouldn't bombing a military hospital come under the rubric of killing the wounded?)

People don't want to think about 20 dead at a bus station in Kandahar, 50 dead in a town called Shamshad that happened to be too close to the Pakistan border, up to 100 killed in the village of Karam near Jalalabad (so early in the war it's been forgotten), an estimated 200 dead in Kouram, 120 emergency rescuers killed while trying to extricate 17 people trapped inside the bombed Sultanpur Mosque in Jalalabad, a 12-year-old in Qala-e-Chaman, 15 people in Tareen Kot, two sisters (age 6 and 11) in the village of Wazir Abad, 90 in Chahoor Kariz, nine killed by one cluster bomb in Shakar Qala, an 8-year-old girl in the Kabul suburb of Macroyan. And I've only counted civilians.

Nobody wants to think about it, which is exactly why the press should be all over it. Put a human face on the "collateral damage." Isn't that what being a war correspondent is all about?

If the foreign press has been able to cobble together these kinds of numbers, why is the Pentagon so slow to confirm or deny them? "We can't independently verify" is getting a little old. Go there and look. Other people are. They just don't happen to be American. There are Americans who still believe there's such a thing as a pretty war.

In the province of Paktia, there are scores of widows and orphans whose husband and father have died while fighting for the Taliban. The problem is that these headless families are not Afghani --they're Arab foreign nationals. The Afghani villagers fear that, if al Qaida or Arabs are found in their village, then the village will be bombed. So the foreign women and children are shunned. Lately they've taken to sleeping in cars and driving from one place to another each day. It's a great human interest story. I read it in a British newspaper.

When a foreigner enters one of the Paktia villages, he's often greeted with cries of "No al Qaida! No Arabs!" They've even learned to say the phrase in English.

Someday it will make a great title for a book.


(John Bloom writes several columns for UPI. He can be reached at joebob@upi.com.)

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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