Slaughter at the Bridge of Death

A roundtable between Paul Barrow, Jay DeFrank and myself .

It began last night when Aaron Butler sent me Mark Franchetti’s recent piece for the London Times, “Slaughter at the Bridge of Death: US Marines Fire on Civilians.” Brutal, ugly, horrific – this was war at its most disturbing. So I sent the URL around and encouraged people to read it, noting that we weren’t seeing stories like this from our press. The article provoked a reply from Paul Barrow (Paul is a former colleague from my Boston days, and a native Brit, which explains his familiarity with the Times), upon which I commented, and that elicited a commentary from Col. Jay DeFrank, who heads up PR for the Dept. of Defense at the Pentagon. So here’s what passed back and forth via e-mail, more or less.

Paul: This piece was so sensationalist I had difficulty believing it could be attributed to the Times. But a Google search revealed that Mark Franchetti’s by-lines during his time as a correspondent in Germany and Russia have included such examples of high-minded journalism as:

  • “German Young Find Solace in Satanism”
  • “Stalin’s Secret Son by Girl, 14”
  • “Hitler’s Burnt Bones Tipped Into Sewer”
  • “‘Imperfect’ Children Left to Die”
  • “Pilots flew into A-bomb Blasts”
  • “Europe’s Roaring Trade in Sex Slaves”

You are seeing stories like this from the American press. Luckily, they tend to be restricted to the supermarket tabloids. Franchetti seems to have honed his “charred and mangled bodies” left by “haggard, heavily armed US soldiers” schtick during a brief assignment in Afghanistan. He then gained a certain degree of credibility in October 2002 when he obtained an exclusive interview with the Chechen guerillas inside the Moscow theater, which might explain how he got himself such a prime gig embedded with the Marines. But “Slaughter at the Bridge of Death” is hyperbolic even for him, and given that the story is already flying like a blood-soaked white flag on dozens of anti-war sites across the web, I suspect we’ll see him swiftly become persona non grata with the Pentagon. If the grunts don’t frag him first…

Sam: It was an odd piece, I thought. The first few paragraphs were so sensationalist, so intentionally built around an attempt to horrify, that I almost quit reading. But then he settled down and simply started telling the story, and it was at this point that I felt like he started to earn his keep.

Like many people, I really revolt when I feel an attempt is being made to manipulate me. This isn’t the same as coming at me with an agenda, which I’m cool with so long as you aren’t trying to hide the agenda. But when I feel you trying to emotionally herd me, it’s like you don’t trust me to be smart enough to know what to do with the fact. It’s arrogant and condescending, and one of the true hallmarks of bad writing.

And that’s where the article spends the first few paragraphs. Too much of the “she could have been the mother” crap.

But then he turns into a good reporter, with almost no warning. Interesting.

Jay: Here’s the thing – combat is sensational. One of the reasons many military people like having reporters with them in combat is that they are asked to do things so extraordinary, in the truest sense of the word, that they often feel no one but those there with them will ever know, or ever understand what was asked of them, what they endured, or what they accomplished. If you “desensationalized” a story like Franchetti’s you’d sanitize and sterilize it thereby grossly distorting it in a dangerous way. There is a good reason war should be a last resort. You can accomplish a positive end with warfare, but it comes at a terrible price. Sanitize and sterilize the picture and you misrepresent the price. History is replete with examples of exactly this being done.

I am reminded of how the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen John Jumper, has introduced himself in public forums before: “My name is Johnny Jumper. I am an airman. My job is to kill people and destroy things.” In your face? I don’t think so any more than is necessary to make sure that what the application of military force is all about is clearly understood up-front. Too often the military is portrayed from the human interest side as great kids and family people, the coolest technology, humanitarian missions, peacekeeping – anything but killing and destroying. It is all of those things, but the two very things that entirely undergird military power are the ability to kill and destroy at an unacceptable cost to your adversary, but at a cost you can bear. Without the effectiveness of those two things all you have for a military is tinsel on the tree.

I’ll go out on a limb here – I do think Franchetti’s copy was sensational. Appropriately so for the material. It felt voyeuristic, painful and, in places, almost obscene to read. I felt wrung-out when I finished it. Our guys getting killed and mutilated in combat is a horrible tragedy, but, very coldly, it is not unexpected of warriors. However, after very publicly stating that we don’t deliberately target innocent civilians, the deaths of many of them is shocking because neither as a nation, nor as individuals, do we want to do that, or even want to accept that good people do these things (including the military people in combat). Franchetti led with what would be the most troubling news and made you feel the disgust up-front and sensationally – with impact. Then he told the soldiers’ story so that by the time he finished you had a complex, nuanced feeling and understanding of the story as he saw it. I’m sure it’s not the whole story – I’m sure there are probably alternate accounts and inaccuracies. But he appropriately summoned emotions for impact to lead to an understanding that no cold, sanitized account of this engagement could adequately convey.

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