In every war snapshot, much stays outside the frame

The litter of a fight was all around us: expended shell casings, pockmarked walls from bullets and grenades. Even though the bulk of the battle had passed us by, there were moments when a rocket-propelled grenade would explode all too near ...

By Peter Sleeth 

The litter of a fight was all around us: expended shell casings, pockmarked walls from bullets and grenades. Even though the bulk of the battle had passed us by, there were moments when a rocket-propelled grenade would explode all too near or a machine gun would chatter off in the distance.

At one point, alarmed by warnings of a counterattack, a CNN photographer and I hunkered behind the engine of a Humvee for protection.

Just yards away, four Iraqi corpses hung from a burning truck or lay spread on the pavement, a macabre reminder of an attempted suicide bombing just hours earlier.

In the midst of all this, 1st Lt. Justin Chandler was giving Skittles and sweetened water to two Iraqi children, and I took the picture. It was the only picture I took of that afternoon on a side street in As Samawah, Iraq. The picture told a little story, but it left out so much of what was happening all around me.

War correspondence is like that -- you take a shot at what you see, but most remains untold. Journalism is about facts, figures and quotes. In our format, much of the truth of war doesn't make it home.

I was one of about 600 journalists sent to cover the war with Iraq. I had never been to war. My closest brush with the Army was deciding whether or not to register for the draft as the Vietnam War wound down in 1974. I am experienced in camping and that came in handy as I spent nearly six weeks with the 82nd Airborne Division in Kuwait and Iraq. Along the way I did manage to learn a thing or two about war and the military.

In this photograph, Chandler is breaking all the rules. Soldiers were under orders to contact civilians only out of military necessity. At the time, nobody knew for certain who was the enemy.

The kids were crying and scared.

Out of the frame and to the lieutenant's left, their mother sat, dazed and wounded. Beside her, a half-dozen women and children and an old man stretched out on the sidewalk. He was bloody with shrapnel wounds up and down his body.

American medics were patching them up. Squatting on the edge of the curb was a line of Iraqi prisoners, handcuffed from behind and in their underwear. They had thrown away their uniforms in an escape attempt. They sat, heads hung, shoulders hunched in the hot sun.

When an Iraqi man pleaded for help for a young girl with an abdominal wound, American medics hustled down a street that had not been cleared for snipers and brought her back on a stretcher. She was very beautiful with long, thick black hair. Blood, both dried and wet, pooled on her stomach, and her face was very white. I thought she was about my youngest daughter's age -- 12. Complexities abound when you are in the position of relying on soldiers for survival, then trying to accurately report on them. We ate their rations, slept with them and depended on them for protection.

At night, when they slept, we stayed up and wrote about them. All of us knew Military Intelligence was reading our copy immediately after it appeared in print. We also knew that if we violated any of the guidelines we operated under, we would be escorted out of Iraq.

It could be infuriating. In the first few days of the 82nd Airborne Division's approach to As Samawah in south central Iraq, we were prohibited from naming the town. We reporters found that ridiculous. The Iraqis certainly knew the 82nd was knocking on their door. The only ones who didn't know were our readers, but we had to keep quiet.

One day as I walked through an abandoned Iraqi military base that the 2nd Brigade of the division was using for headquarters, I was looking through my camera's viewfinder. A Special Forces soldier angrily told me I could not take pictures of him or his vehicles. That was patent baloney, there was no such restriction. He tried to take my camera and erase the pictures he thought I took. I refused, we argued and we ended up walking away, both boiling mad.

Every reporter, I am sure, has stories like that, new rules that individual soldiers tried to lay on us. This was all so new, and the trust was so thin. A French television crew from Paris was with the 82nd Airborne Division. The reporter, Michel Floquet, had covered a half-dozen wars in Europe, Africa and the Middle East over 20 years. Two things stood out about this new way of reporting war, he said.

One was he had never been closer to combat. In other wars, reporters came in after the military was done, and the military shunned them. You reported what you found and returned to a hotel to file a story. This time, he was with the soldiers for weeks in the field. It was exhausting, filthy and at times demoralizing, but he had never been closer to war in all his experience.

Two, he had never had such close access to soldiers. He could talk to them on the record with no censorship. This was an amazing development in war reporting, he said. And the American soldiers, Floquet said, were so thoughtful and really wanted to know and understand France's position in the United Nations. He said he never even tried to talk to soldiers in the French Foreign Legion. You just got out of their way.

All of the reporters throughout the theater had similar yet wildly different experiences.

Each of us had the potential for major stories, but few really came across them. The Oregonian almost had one of the biggest stories of the war: The 82nd Airborne Division was supposed to parachute in and seize Saddam International Airport in Baghdad. The division had been planning the airborne assault since October, thought to be the largest combat air assault since World War II. But plans changed quickly once the shooting started. The 82nd Airborne lost the assignment in favor of protecting the exposed supply lines from Kuwait.

What was left to write about was the two major jobs for front-line reporters: verifying the truth in the field and reporting on what soldiers endured in their daily fight to survive in the desert.

In the end, each of the reporters "embedded" with the military made a contribution, I suppose. Some of the work was sterling, some lousy and much of it mundane.

If the American public received a better view of this war, it was because there were hundreds of ants with cameras and notepads on the anthill this time, watching the Army march forward. It took an army to cover one. Before we journalists all plunged into war, a famous newscaster wondered aloud whether we would be embedded or entombed, restricted in what we could report about ongoing military campaigns. To me, it felt more like being injected through a syringe very quickly into the heart of the American military machine.

It is a phenomenal weapon. As you watch the American military go to war it becomes appalling clear why we live in the First World and much of the rest of the globe inhabits the Third World. We Americans are as close to invincible as an army can make us. I am not sure how I feel about that, but to see this machine so close is nothing short of amazing.

I do not mean just the weapons, which are awesome enough. It is the soldiers themselves.

Michael Shaara titled his 1974, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on the American Civil War "The Killer Angels." I understand that phrase now.

For two weeks in March in Kuwait I lived in a troop tent with about 50 soldiers as they waited to go to war. Reporters were spread among the troops and saw each other only when we met at a press tent. In such close quarters, both physically and emotionally, I formed fast bonds with the soldiers. Those grew tighter when we moved into Iraq. Everyone was scared and everyone knew it, and there is a deep bond in that.

The men, young as they are, looked much like the boys who come to date my teenage daughter. Some barely shave. They eat candy and junk food and behave like kids. I could not help but laugh at their antics and smile at their generosity. They were young, full of life and tremendously lonely for their families.

By their training they are meticulously prepared to kill. From their tactics in squads to their use of crossfire with different weapons, they function in teams against Third World armies that typically fight as individual warriors and die that way in the face of this superbly trained army of young soldiers. Each has a capacity to kill with his weapons unequaled in military history. Yet the irony of who these soldiers are, compared with what they do, is striking.

One late night shortly before they headed into battle, I stood outside by a missile bunker making a satellite phone call to my editor. After I finished, a skinny young soldier who didn't look older than 16 approached me. He had heard me talking on the phone, risen from his sleep and come out of his tent in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.

Soldiers had been shut off from phone contact with their families for a week and would be for months to come. He apologized for even asking, then pleaded with me to let him call his parents. He said he knew it was trouble for both of us, as it violated military regulations, but he said he just had to talk to his mom and dad one more time before going into battle.

It was moment so drenched in humanity I will always remember it. I just couldn't let him do it. Probably 95 percent of those soldiers had never been in battle. One soldier I knew and liked was small, yet he carried the biggest infantry weapon soldiers carry -- a machine gun that weighs about 23 pounds and puts out 800 rounds a minute. He got in his first fight and killed a man with that gun at As Samawah.

I saw him later; it seems trite to say he was changed, but he was. His face was grimy and he looked very tired. He no longer carried the machine gun. He carried a rifle. I asked him why. He said the machine gun was just too heavy for him.

I doubted that.

I think what the machine gun did that day at As Samawah was too heavy for him. Stories like his rarely get told, for a lot of reasons. Like the picture of the lieutenant with the kids, you can only capture so much in war. It never seems like you have told the whole story. Reach Peter Sleeth at 503 294-4119 or

Copyright 2003 The Oregonian. Reprinted with permission.