By: Allan Wolper
Kevin Sites has the scene embedded in his psyche. Once again he sees a Marine corporal cursing, “He’s f—— faking he’s dead,” just before shooting an unarmed Iraqi insurgent slumped against a wall in a Fallujah mosque. Another Marine, standing nearby, says, quietly, “Well, he’s dead now.”
One more body in the bloodiest battle of the war in Iraq — the American-led assault on Fallujah.
Sites, a 42-year-old freelance television correspondent for NBC, captured the entire episode with his camera. The U.S. networks, including NBC, broadcast the story of the mosque but blacked out the actual shooting. But the Arab world saw everything — and reacted with revulsion.
American conservatives attacked Sites for shooting an incident that they claim unfairly undermined the morale of the Marines, while antiwar activists used it to attack the war itself. Still, in this country, it became the shooting few people saw.
Sites said that must change. “People need to see the full video, so that they can make up their own minds about what happened,” he told me during an interview from his California home. “It is important to show the reality of war. It is important to tell the truth, the whole truth. … You cannot hide the truth. You cannot bury the truth. You cannot destroy the truth.”
He paused, making certain he was understood: “We are a nation of adults. The video has been seen around the world. We should be able to show it here.”
It is important now because the military recently cleared the still-unidentified corporal of any wrongdoing. “The reason I didn’t identify the Marine is that I felt that the issue was important,” Sites said. “Those kinds of things happen in war. It was not about judging that particular individual.” But Sites believes Americans still need to see what he witnessed.
“It is shocking what happens in war,” he said. “Maybe we are not conditioned to see much. The stuff that is shown is fairly well sanitized. … War is about killing people.”
Sites knows broadcasting the actual shooting might reprise the horrors that he and a former girlfriend endured when the story first broke last November. “We received some valid death threats,” he said, recalling the “thousands and thousands” of e-mail messages and telephone calls he received from angry supporters of the troops. “People would say, ‘We know what kind of car you drive.’ Every time I’m on the air or there is a story on the video, the death threats start all over again. When you write this, it is going to happen, too.”
Sites is suffering emotionally in the aftermath of the story. The Marines had viewed him as a friendly face in a sea of media doubters. He even helped carry one wounded soldier to safety on a stretcher. His sympathetic portraits of the young people at war on the network and on his popular blog got him scores of thank-you letters: “They told me I was the only one telling the real story of what happened.”
His desire to see the video aired represents a total change of heart. When he first filmed the shooting at the mosque, he was concerned that showing it might imperil the lives of the 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, with whom he was embedded. “I was worried that the insurgents who captured our Marines might want to kill them in revenge,” he said. “It was a heavy burden to bear. It was a circumstance rife with ethical dilemmas.”
One choice was made for him: Sites was a pool reporter. That meant he had a moral obligation to share his story with the other correspondents on the ground with him. So after doing some additional reporting that lasted for 48 hours and getting some Marine reaction, he put the tape up on the satellite — including the actual shooting.
Sites then made an ethical decision that is always a problem for journalists. He gave a 20-minute deposition to the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigation Service — straddling the line that separates reporters from the people they cover.
“I told them what I am telling you,” said Sites, the winner of the 2005 Payne Award for Ethics in Journalism. “It was my responsibility as a citizen. I had witnessed something. I wasn’t being a tool of government. I wasn’t protecting confidential sources. I hadn’t been told things I couldn’t talk about.”
How did his media colleagues in Iraq react to his troubles? “They were happy not to be in my shoes,” he told me. “It was a big story. If it is done incorrectly it could ruin your career. And then even if you do it right, it is not the recipe for living happily ever after.
“What was interesting is that I got support from places I never expected it. Darrin Mortensen of the North County Times [near San Diego, Calif.], which is the hometown paper for Camp Pendleton, made the most eloquent defense for me. That’s the kind of personal integrity that differentiates so many who are practicing journalism today. I don’t think that a lot of people thought that I what I did was their fight. they didn’t make a passionate defense of the profession.”
Sites feels that the military has as many fair-minded individuals as the media. “There are military people, just like in our profession, who practice their work in less than an ethical way,” said Sites. “The military try to learn from history. That is the desire of the institution as a whole.”
The correspondent tested his theory of military accountability in March when she showed his tape of the actual shooting to the 900 members of the West Point graduating class. “The cadets were blown away,” Sites said. “These young people weren’t about closing ranks. They wanted to look at the issue. They were not afraid to confront it.”
Sites was one of four journalists at an off-the-record session at West Point that included Paul Holmes of Reuters, John Kifner of The New York Times, and Christiane Amanpour of CNN.
“The cadets were very discerning,” Holmes, the foreign editor for Reuters, told me afterward. “There weren’t any gasps of horror from the audience or expressions of ‘how dare you show this film to us.’ There was no outrage or shock.”
Holmes added, “The cadets seemed to recognize that this sort of thing happens in war and that a journalist as a truth-seeker has a different sort of role from the military.”
Addressing the cadets, Sites also warned them to be consistent in the battlefield. “I told them that when they talked to their men about the rules of engagement they must be clear about the rules there,” Sites recalled. “If you tell your men not to shoot insurgents [in custody, that] can’t be followed by a wink that implies they can do something. I told them that the men in their command would bear the brunt of what you tell them to do.”
Sites says he’s finally coming to grips with what he filmed: “Every day that goes by I become convinced that what I did was not only right, but necessary. But it took me a while to be at peace with it.”
The Marines loved Sites when they thought he was their Iraq Ernie Pyle. They didn’t know he also had a little Seymour Hersh in him.