ABC News, Vanity Fair in Afghanistan

Capturing a harrowing time and place

Lots of people—from citizens to soldiers to journalists to milbloggers—have been clamoring for months (or years), for reporters in Iraq and Afghanistan to get out in the field and embed with troops more frequently, in order to give the American public a better sense of what our troops are facing on the ground on a daily basis.

Well, ask (often enough, anyway) and you shall receive. In October, ABC News sent Vanity Fair writer Sebastian Junger and photographer Tim Hetherington to embed with the 2nd Platoon, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, for a joint assignment for ABC News and VF. Junger’s piece is slated for the January issue of VF, and last night, ABC’s World News and Nightline aired segments that provided a gripping, all-too-rare look into the everyday realities being faced by American military personnel in this war.

The video showed Battle company’s living conditions at its outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and captured a bit of the humor, and the terror, these men have experienced during their tour. The footage of firefights is harrowing, and the inside glimpse of counterinsurgency operations in all their complicated, messy reality, brings home—powerfully—the reality of the delicate situation the American military faces in its current conflicts.

After an argument with a group of village elders, for instance, Battle company endures several ambushes, in which three soldiers are killed and six are wounded. The aftermath of one of the fights, in which we see the boot of a dead soldier and the reactions of his comrades, is gut-wrenching—but should be mandatory viewing for all Americans, no matter their views on the war.

On the ABC News blog “The Blotter,” many viewers took exception to these graphic images, trotting out the tired old accusation that ABC is a “traitor” for airing the footage, and accusing the network of focusing on the “bad” news instead of the good that the troops are doing. Over time, I’ve developed some sympathy for the view that the mainstream media have on occasion dropped the ball on reporting signs of progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in this case, the upset viewers are missing the point. What Junger and Hetherington experienced was an American combat unit clashing with local tribal elders, and the possible fallout—Taliban ambushes—that were the likely result. There’s no “good news” here, only the confusing reality of small-unit counterinsurgency operations. This is what war in this particular part of Afghanistan looks like, and it’s not ABC’s fault if there was no “good news” coming from the small slice of the war its reporters were sent to witness. Once a reporter embeds with a particular unit, he or she is hostage to the situation on the ground in their area, and if the news is bad, well, the report must reflect that.

War is bad news, and no reporter worth his or her salt—from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Ernie Pyle to Dexter Filkins—will ever, or should ever, try to sugarcoat that.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.