Abstract Quality Journalism for War

The New York Times used three square inches of newsprint on June 30 to dispatch two U.S. Army soldiers under the headline “Names of the Dead.” Their names — Peter K. Cross and Steven T. Drees — were listed along with hometowns, ranks and ages. Cross was 20 years old. Drees was 19.

They were, the newspaper reported, the latest of 706 Americans “who have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations.” There wasn’t enough room for any numbers, names or ages of Afghans who have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations.

That’s the way routine death stories go. But of course no amount of newsprint or airtime can do more than scratch the human surface. Reporting on life is like that, and reporting on death is like that: even more so when the media lenses are ground with ideology, nationalism and economic convenience.

But real grief isn’t like that. It twists and burns and has only names and adjectives unworthy of itself. That doesn’t stop many journalists or politicians from claiming to describe what’s beyond description.

A week before Peter K. Cross and Steven T. Drees were buried in a three-square-inch box on page A9 of the national edition, the New York Times editorialized about the war that killed them and 704 other members of the U.S. military. Years from now, media researchers and historians will view the date of that lead editorial, June 23, 2009, as a time when the American deaths in Afghanistan had not yet reached four digits and when the uncounted Afghan deaths were a lower uncounted number.

Beginning with its headline — “Afghanistan’s Failing Forces” — the editorial was replete with erudite lamentation (not to be confused with grief). The war has been managed so badly. Two authoritative sentences bookended the editorial: “The news from Afghanistan is grim.” And, “There is no more time to waste.”

The words in between were consistent with a grand tradition of press demands for more effective warfare. (“President Obama was right to send more American troops to fight. … The Taliban must be confronted head-on. … Building an effective Afghan Army is critical…”) Peering into their computer screens in Manhattan, the editorialists would have been more concise to simply write: “Let’s you and them fight.”

Some who went into battle have a very different perspective. “As an infantry rifleman in the Marines Corps, I saw so much of these wars through nightly patrols,” says Rick Reyes, a former Marine corporal who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. “We worked with translators whose sole interest in supplying us intelligence was to earn money and other forms of aid. We gathered information that often proved faulty. During a raid, we would ransack homes, breaking windows, doors, families, lives, chairs and tables, detaining and arresting anyone who seemed suspicious. In one case, we detained, beat, and nearly killed a man, only to realize he was merely trying to deliver milk to his children.”

Reyes speaks of a routine with “unconscionable acts of violence” and awful harm to civilians, whatever the differences in terrain: “These patrols were all the same, whether I was in the desolate desert terrain near Camp Rhino, the U.S.-led coalition’s first strategic foothold in Afghanistan, or stationed outside Basra in Iraq.”

When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard from Rick Reyes on April 23, he did a lot to shatter illusions with six minutes of testimony.

But the conventional wisdom of press and state insists that the U.S. war effort must do more than go on — it must escalate — in the name of human decency. The political rhetoric in Washington is close to 100 percent humanitarian, while the new supplemental infusion of U.S. spending for Afghanistan is 90 percent military.

Inside a contrived news frame, destruction can nurture life. In media myth, we can be well-informed and ignorant of war’s realities. Along the way, the benefits of numbed quiescence and muffled dissent are vastly overrated.