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John Simkin

Morality of War Reporting

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The broadcast last week of footage showing a US marine shooting an injured Iraqi fighter in Falluja caused an international outcry. Yesterday the cameraman, Kevin Sites, published on his website this open letter to the marines with whom he had been embedded. Here is a brief passage from the article. The whole article is well worth looking at:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/st...1357275,00.html

did not in any way feel like I had captured some kind of "prize" video. In fact, I was heartsick. Immediately after the mosque incident, I told the unit's commanding officer what had happened. I shared the video with him, and its impact rippled all the way up the chain of command. Marine commanders immediately pledged their cooperation.

We all knew it was a complicated story and, if not handled responsibly, could have the potential to further inflame the volatile region. I offered to hold the tape until they had time to look into incident and begin an investigation - providing me with information that would fill in some of the blanks.

For those who don't practise journalism as a profession, it may be difficult to understand why we must report stories like this at all - especially if they seem to be aberrations, and not representative of the behaviour or character of an organisation as a whole.

The answer is not an easy one.

In war, as in life, there are plenty of opportunities to see the full spectrum of good and evil that people are capable of. As journalists, it is our job is to report both - though neither may be fully representative of those people on whom we're reporting.

But our coverage of these unique events, combined with the larger perspective, will allow the truth of that situation, in all of its complexities, to begin to emerge. That doesn't make the decision to report events like this one any easier. It has, for me, led to an agonising struggle - the proverbial long, dark night of the soul.

When NBC aired the story 48 hours later, we did so in a way that attempted to highlight every possible mitigating issue for that marine's actions. We wanted viewers to have a very clear understanding of the circumstances surrounding the fighting on that frontline. Many of our colleagues were just as responsible.

Other foreign networks made different decisions, and because of that, I have become the conflicted conduit who has brought this to the world.

I interviewed your commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Willy Buhl, before the battle for Falluja began. He said something very powerful at the time - something that now seems prophetic. It was this:

"We're the good guys. We are Americans. We are fighting a gentleman's war here - because we don't behead people, we don't come down to the same level of the people we're combating.

"That's a very difficult thing for a young 18-year-old marine who's been trained to locate, close with and destroy the enemy with fire and close combat. That's a very difficult thing for a 42-year-old lieutenant colonel with 23 years experience in the service who was trained to do the same thing once upon a time, and who now has a thousand-plus men to lead, guide, coach, mentor - and ensure we remain the good guys and keep the moral high ground." I listened carefully when he said those words. I believed them.

So here, ultimately, is how it all plays out: when the Iraqi man in the mosque posed a threat, he was your enemy; when he was subdued he was your responsibility; when he was killed in front of my eyes and my camera - the story of his death became my responsibility.

The burdens of war, as you so well know, are unforgiving for all of us.

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