The media (An Afghanistan war story)

24Sep12

As I said in my introductory post, I try to stay away from politics. That’s just about impossible at the moment, as our impending election leads family members, friends and neighbors to accuse each other of being either “commies” or “nazipublicans”. I’m always amazed at the level of invective the opposing sides hurl at each other. I grew up with Democrats and Republicans all around me, and there were plenty of brave, honest, solid American citizens on both sides. Why this election, or any election, should lead reasonable people to demonize other normal Americans for their political views is beyond me.

Maybe the media is partially to blame. We know much of the media is a cheering section for one side or the other. We should know not to accept anything reported by any media outlet as gospel truth. Or at least I know not to accept it as truth, because I’ve had a few experiences that taught me otherwise.

These experiences have been benign, for the most part. In Kosovo a reporter for a police magazine managed to not only misquote me but also identify me as “Chris Martinez”, even though when she spoke to me I was wearing a nametape with Hernandez on it. In one of the small towns I worked, a DPS trooper and I arrested a county jail escapee inside his house. The local paper reported four county deputies had made the arrest. Police incidents I’ve been involved in have been misreported in the paper or on TV so often I’m surprised when they’re reported accurately. But it’s no big deal, media inaccuracy is just one of those things we cops have learned to expect.

However, I expect a little more diligence from the media reporting about our soldiers at war. Unfortunately, that’s not what I always saw. And I think you should know about it.

So no joke, there I was, on a mission with the French Marines in Kapisa province. This was a complex mission designed to get the residents of one particularly troublesome valley onto the coalition’s side. The plan was for French armored vehicles and Marines on foot to set security along the single valley road, so the Afghan Army and Civil Affairs team could hold a meeting with local village elders. After the meeting, the French would offer vaccinations for children and hand out supplies. Two media crews, one American and one French, were with us to document what transpired.

The mission started well. The Marines established security and the meeting was held in an Afghan Army outpost. I was in the French company commander’s vehicle on the road listening to intelligence reports about fifty Taliban preparing to attack us. After a few minutes, it was obvious this mission was about to turn from a humanitarian mission to a full-blown firefight.

About an hour after we entered the valley, the fight began. One of the reasons I found this engagement interesting is because the very first bullet fired was fired at me. A Marine and I were sticking up out of the back of the company commander’s vehicle when our snipers in the mountains behind us spotted a group of Taliban. The commander gave the snipers permission to engage. I waited in eager anticipation for the French snipers to blow some Taliban away.

However, before the snipers fired from the mountains behind us, a Taliban “sniper” with worse aim than Ray Charles took a shot at us. I saw dirt puff up from the ground seventy-five or so feet away, followed immediately by the sound of a single gunshot. The guy had shot at me and my buddy, and missed by a mile.   

A half second later the French snipers opened fire. Two deep booms echoed across the valley, and a very satisfied French voice reported over the radio, “One Taliban killed and one wounded.” At the same time, a terrified Afghan woman with two children fled across open ground between us and the Taliban to get into her compound.

I had just been shot at, and then had .50 caliber bullets fly over my head to hit Taliban fighters a short distance away. I guess normal people would expect me and my Marine buddy to have ducked into the vehicle. But soldiers in combat don’t always react the way you expect them to, or the way we expect ourselves to. Instead of ducking, the Marine and I looked at each other with “what just happened?” expressions, until I said in French, “I think the Taliban just shot at us.” He agreed. And then neither one of us bothered to take cover.

More reports buzzed over the radio. The company commander maneuvered platoons toward the area where Taliban had last been seen. I scanned through my rifle scope and binoculars and didn’t see anything. In the distance, gunfire crackled. Just a few weapons at first, then dozens. Excited voices on the radio yelled reports to the company commander, overloading my meager French skills. I struggled to understand what the Marines were saying as I relayed what little I knew to the few Americans in the valley. I watched a French platoon charge across the open to set a blocking position. A young kid climbed onto the roof of his compound a few hundred meters away, looked over the edge toward a spot I couldn’t see, then turned and fled in terror as the Taliban opened fire at him. I realized the enemy was close enough for me to easily pop one with my M14, if only they would expose themselves.

At some point, a Taliban machine gunner decided to shoot me and my Marine buddy. I was scanning through binoculars at the woods, and heard the sk! sk! sk! of twenty or so rounds passing right over my head, just before the rattle of a RPK machine gun rang out. This time, my buddy and I got the hell down into the vehicle. It wasn’t until months later, after I came home from the war, that I watched my helmet camera video and realized what my reaction to almost getting the crap shot out of me by a machine gun had been.

I had laughed. When the rounds zipped over I yelled “Oh shit!”, laughed my head off and scrambled to get into the armored vehicle’s passenger compartment. Right after I got behind cover, I stuck my head back up above the hatch to search through binoculars again. Like I said, reactions in combat aren’t always what we expect.

Kiowa helicopters rolled in, blew the crap out of the suspected enemy position with machine guns and fired white phosphorous rockets to mark the area. Apaches came in behind them and fired 30mm rounds and Hellfire missiles. I watched tree branches spin out of dust clouds and tumble through the air. Concussions reverberated across the valley floor and whooshed around our vehicle. If you’ve never watched an air strike on hidden enemy 300 meters away, you don’t know what you’re missing. It is friggin’ inspiring.

The gunfire faded and died. Within minutes, villagers sought out Afghan soldiers to tell them five Taliban had been killed, including a High Value Target local commander who we didn’t even know had been out there. The meeting with village elders ended, followed by the planned vaccinations and supplies handout. According to counterinsurgency experts, the mission had been a total success. The coalition had gone into the valley for the sole purpose of meeting with local civilian leaders and assisting the population. The enemy tried to stop us and failed, losing four fighters and a commander in the process. After the fight, locals enthusiastically came out to have their children vaccinated. The coalition didn’t suffer a single casualty. In technical terms, we made the Taliban our bitch.

Now, back to the media’s involvement. The France24 media team was with a French Marine platoon and took some great combat footage. Their news report was very informative and gave a very good view of the battle. They reported on all aspects of the battle, including enemy casualties. Here are links to France24’s report, “The Battle of the Afghania Valley” (fair warning, the narrator’s voice will make you want to chew your fingers off):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KEopGTNdsCs&feature=relmfu (Part 1)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AfLjy_48jsw&feature=relmfu (Part 2)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lGGTzlRLyDI&feature=relmfu (Part 3)

The American team’s reporting was, I guess you could say, a bit different. I had met with them before the mission, when they told us about the documentary they were filming. Afterward, I met with them again to give them my perspective of the battle, and even gave them my helmet camera video. All my interaction with them was positive. When I came home, I eagerly awaited their documentary. When I saw it in 2010, I was stunned.

The American team was in the Afghan Army outpost during the fight and covered the medical assistance mission afterward. Their report was also very informative, except on the subject of who won and who lost. For some reason, they only mentioned one single casualty: an Afghan woman injured when a “mortar” fell on her compound. Their report didn’t mention any enemy killed, or the fact that the French didn’t fire any mortars that day. They skipped the fact that an enemy commander was killed. They skipped the fact that we won a major counterinsurgency fight.

During my entire deployment, I was only on two missions that could be referred to as total victories for our side. In wars like the one we’re fighting in Afghanistan, undeniable victories are hard to come by and are therefore precious. This mission was one of those victories. But it wasn’t portrayed that way.

Since I saw the documentary, I’ve tried to figure out why the American team reported the way they did. We often hear that the media is anti-war and anti-military, but these journalists certainly didn’t seem to be when we spoke face to face. Their documentary didn’t make us out to be evil, except maybe by suggesting we were responsible for injuring the Afghan woman. And they did a good job of highlighting the challenges we face trying to make progress in Afghanistan (the other half of the documentary shows the fight between the Pakistani government and the Taliban). But for some reason, they didn’t report one glaring, blindingly obvious fact about this fight: we won.

I’m not making a sweeping pronouncement about all journalists with this blog. I’m just telling you about one noteworthy incident from my personal experience. You can draw your own conclusions.

Maybe you thought, “I bet those were journalists from some tiny, unknown magazine or something. They’re probably known for slanted reporting.” But if you did, you’re wrong. The journalists were with National Geographic, and the documentary is called Talibanistan. It’s on Netflix and Youtube. Check it out sometime. After you watch it, let me know if I’m the only one who feels like facts of our victory were intentionally left out.



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