Sat, 05 Apr 2003

Seeking objectivity in midst of war

Tsuyoshi Nojima, The Asahi Shimbun, Tokyo

The grueling reality of being a war correspondent sinks in deeper every day.

I am accompanying the 1st Regiment of the 1st Division of the U.S. Marines. Last week, this convoy of armored vehicles and trucks was crawling along a national highway at about 10 kilometers per hour, when another unit started shelling an Iraqi encampment near the highway with 60-millimeters trench mortars. The Iraqis returned fire.

With these mortars, there is a lag of about 10 seconds between firing and impact. Five thunderous rounds were fired. The first four missed the target, kicking up thick clouds of dust. I held my breath as I waited for the fifth.

Bull's-eye-right on target. The Marines whooped in wild elation. And so did I.

Where was my neutrality as a journalist? It was definitely not for me to rejoice over this "successful attack." There was no question that the Iraqi soldiers who were killed in that encampment were fighting for their lives.

Yet, I could not suppress my spontaneous elation.

When you are a war correspondent, you entrust your very life to the troops you are accompanying. This is what makes war coverage utterly and fundamentally different from any other kind of news coverage.

I have been tagging along the Marines for three weeks now. During the past week on the road from An Nasiriyah to Al Kut, I was in combat every day. When shooting erupted from both sides of the road, I jumped off the truck in panic, but had no idea where to flee. I just lay flat on the ground, covering my head with my hands.

The Iraqi troops shooting at me have become frightful "foes", and the Marines my trusted "friends." In fact, sharing our quarters and being in this together, friendship has been developing among us.

For this war in Iraq, the U.S. government has allowed as many as 600 war correspondents of various nationalities to accompany the U.S. forces. Most, however, are local U.S. newspaper reporters.

I suspect media manipulation here. My gut feeling tells me Washington hopes to drum up support for this war at home by letting American reporters crank out stories that are sympathetic to the U.S. military.

I do not think the stories I have filed so far are particularly pro-America. But they are not critical of America, either. All I can say is that I have been struggling every day to report what I see as objectively as possible, cautioning myself constantly against taking sides with the U.S. troops.

I must concede, however, that because I am with them every day, my stories have tended to be written from the angle of how the U.S. forces are fighting in Iraq.

But even then, I have never regretted participating in the Iraq war as a war correspondent.

Being under the protection of the U.S. military does not necessarily mean taking a completely pro-U.S. position. In one story I reported how the Marines rounded up Iraqi women and children in the bitter cold in their search for Iraqi militiamen.

This was one reality of war that no story datelined Washington would ever tell.

Meantime, I have been extremely careful in evaluating whatever information I receive on the front. Every day, a public relation officer briefs us on the latest U.S. "achievements."

The other day, a senior Marine officer took some of us war correspondents aside and told us he had "good news." He produced a set of protective gear against chemical weapons-gas masks, syringes of anti-toxins and so on.

The Marines wanted us to believe this was proof that the Iraqis were in possession of chemical weapons.

I thought about it for a day, and finally decided not to write about this. I kept asking myself, "Why did the Iraqis leave behind those precious gas masks?" And I could never completely shake off the feeling that the gear had turned up just a bit too conveniently.

Reports of a similar "discovery" were dispatched around the world as official information provided by the U.S. military. Should the Iraqis eventually use chemical weapons, it will mean I was wrong to have decided against writing about those gas masks. Only time will tell.

How should I understand this war? All I can say is that both the United States and Iraq have much to answer for.

Being a war correspondent is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.

All I can do is keep struggling and thinking and groping for my own perspective on the reality of war.

This story was dispatched from central Iraq.