By: Greg Mitchell
“The hardest thing,? Darrin Mortenson told me over the phone from California Monday night, “was, after everything I?ve done, to be called a traitor.? Among the things he?s done: serve his country as an infantry sergeant and take two tours of duty in Iraq as an embedded reporter for the North County Times of suburban San Diego.
But this week, in defending embattled NBC television reporter Kevin Sites — the man behind the now-famous video from Fallujah showing a U.S. Marine shooting an injured insurgent — abuse is coming Mortenson’s way in waves. “Yeah,” he told me, “I?m getting my butt kicked around here a bit. I try not to take it personally.”
Sites, still in Iraq with the Marines, is getting it even worse, from conservative commentators here at home to the troops (his former buddies) over there. “Sites wrote me first thing this morning,” Mortenson informed me. “He seemed pretty down.”
Mortenson, 36, had met Sites this past spring, during the first, aborted assault on Fallujah, and found him to be a fair and diligent journalist, and one who had previously covered wars in Afghanistan and Kosovo.
He shared with E&P some of the email he has received since writing a lengthy defense of his friend on Sunday:
“That you would consider the death of a terrorist as something bad tells me all I need to know about you.”
“Sorry, I may be old-fashioned, but I prefer Ernie Pyle. At least it seemed as though he wanted Americans to win.”
“The distrust of the major media is at the root of all of this.”
“Go back to Iraq, with a target on your back.”
“If you go back over I hope they take your head.”
“Now each and every embed is in enemy territory. What I mean is, a reporter in the combat zones of Iraq now has no friends. … There is probably not a marine or soldier who will even attempt to save you if they don?t accidentally shoot you first.”
All this abuse came to Mortenson for daring to point out that the blame-the-messenger mentality, “which is always a sign of weakness in a democracy, is contagious and miserable. … When the news is good, everyone hails those hardworking reporters who live in the dirt and danger to accompany the troops, as long as their reports make us feel good. But when the images make us uncomfortable or force us to ask questions, we blame the media. …
“War brings out the very best and the worst in men, especially when both sides claim they have God on their side.”
According to reports he?d hear from the field, Sites? relationship with the troops there is “doomed” and he “was last seen at the base camp near Fallujah eating alone in the chow hall, shunned.”
Mortenson told me he could relate to Sites? plight, because he?d been punished by the Marines during his embed tours for including certain unpleasant truths in a handful of stories.
His phone messages and emails since Sunday have been running 70/30 negative, but “journalists have written from Iraq and Europe to thank me for backing up Sites,” he informed me. Some wives of Marines based nearby told him that he was somehow putting their men in harm?s way, but others said they had relied on Sites? stories and his blog for information about their husbands and they knew his heart was in the right place.
But the soft-spoken Mortenson, a former military man himself, can?t help but feel deeply conflicted.
“Part of me wants to call for all of my fellow embedded reporters to come home, pack up and forget about those hellish places where American troops serve and fight,” he wrote near the end of his Sunday article. “The American people don’t want to hear about it. Come home. It’s not worth the risk. It’s not worth a single hair on your noble and hardworking heads. Let them fend for themselves with government propaganda on one side and Al Jazeera on the other.
“Then, when the troops’ sacrifices go untold, and we have no idea what’s going on in the world and the military falls out of our gaze and to the bottom of the congressional budget, sit back in safety and listen to the armchair critics holler: ?Where were the media??”
But his friend Kevin Sites was even more eloquent in an entry on his blog Sunday, which he addressed directly to the ?Devil Dog? Marines he still serves with:
?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.?
Coming: Part II, a look at Darrin Mortenson?s Iraq experience.