Reviving the Spirit of Ernie Pyle

Dexter Filkins brings us something all too rare lately: on-the-spot reporting about the troops doing the fighting and dying in Iraq.

Back in January, while embedded with a Marine unit in Iraq, I was struck by what appeared to be the relatively small number of reporters who went out with the military to cover the day-to-day lives of the troops in the field. It’s dangerous business, to be sure, but so is staying in one of Baghdad’s fortified hotels (outside of the Green Zone, for those of you who haven’t gotten the memo yet), covering the machinations of the nascent Iraqi government and the predictable press conferences led by American administrators and military brass.

Every now and again, however, a reporter goes out into the field and is turned loose by editors to really let fly. Although it came fast and furious during the early days of the war, this type of reporting has become increasingly rare as the conflict has dragged on. One of the best at this type of reporting is the New York Times’ Dexter Filkins, and his dispatches from Ramadi over the past few days have been filled with the kind of on-the-spot reporting that we’ve been sorely missing — in this case, about the Marines currently doing the fighting, and dying, in Iraq.

The series kicked off on June 27 with some table-setting, with Filkins explaining the tenuous situation in Ramadi (which has been the scene of full-scale combat for the past several months). The Marines assigned to the city are in the process of trying to clear it of insurgents block by hard-won block with the cooperation of Iraqi Army forces, and Filkins provides some background, explaining the difficult situation the Marines find themselves in.

His June 29 article provides a heartbreaking look at the death of 26 year-old Sgt. Terry Michael Lisk, who was killed by a mortar shell. Observing the memorial service for Sgt. Lisk at Camp Ramadi, Filkins writes, “Death comes often to the soldiers and marines who are fighting in Anbar Province … Almost every day, an American soldier is killed somewhere in Anbar — in Ramadi, in Haditha, in Falluja, by a sniper, by a roadside bomb, or as with Sergeant Lisk, by a mortar shell. In the first 27 days of June, 27 soldiers and marines were killed here. In small ways, the military tries to ensure that individual soldiers like Sergeant Lisk are not forgotten in the plenitude of death.”

He recounts one of Lisk’s friends offering a eulogy to his “best friend,” and records the simple, proud words of a Colonel MacFarland, as he addressed his troops after the helicopter ferrying the body back to Baghdad has taken off:

“‘I don’t know if this war is worth the life of Terry Lisk, or 10 soldiers, or 2,500 soldiers like him,’ Colonel MacFarland told his forces. ‘What I do know is that he did not die alone. He was surrounded by friends.

‘A Greek philosopher said that only the dead have seen the end of war,’ the colonel said. ‘Only Terry Lisk has seen the end of this war.’”

Filkins finishes up: “The soldiers turned and walked back to their barracks in the darkness. No one said a word.”

This is the kind of you-are-there journalism that has been in short supply lately, and it’s powerful and affecting stuff — and a far cry from the daily bluster and posturing of necktied hawks in Washington, D.C.

July 2 brought another installment from Ramadi, this time from an observation post on top of a building occupied by Marines.

Filkins talks to 19 year-old Lance Cpl. Joseph Hamlin as he looks over the array of weapons at his disposal, and discusses his girlfriend back home and what it feels like to kill a man. He deftly gives the entire column over to Hamlin’s words, with only brief interjections to segue from topic to topic. The Marine tells him, “I shot a couple of guys …When you’re young, seeing movies and everything, you’re brought up to think killing is wrong. That’s what people do in gangs. Weird. You just shoot. They attack you. Either you are going to shoot and go back to your family or they are going to kill you and keep on killing everyone else. I don’t really know what to think of it.”

“If I shoot, I get to go back to my family, my girl,” Hamlin says. A simple calculus.

Finally, there’s a big piece that ran yesterday. The Government Center, the building the Marines are housed in, “resembles a fortress on the wild edge of some frontier: it is sandbagged, barricaded, full of men ready to shoot, surrounded by rubble and enemies eager to get inside,” Filkins writes.

The Marines “live eight to a room, rarely shower for lack of running water and defecate in bags that are taken outside and burned … The food is tasteless, the windows boarded up. The place reeks of urine and too many bodies pressed too close together for too long.”

Filkins explains how, while so much attention is focused on decisions being made in the Green Zone and on the latest suicide bombings in Baghdad and elsewhere, in Ramadi, “it is still war.” Despite this, the Americans continue their work, trying to build contacts and good will among the people of this Sunni city in the heart of the insurgency while aggressively killing the enemy.

Despite all this — and this is crucial to giving an honest account of the troops — there is still humor. Filkins notes a sheet of paper hung in the Government Center that contains possible slogans for the company’s t-shirt once its tour is up: “Most are unprintable, but here is one that got a lot of laughs: ‘Kilo Company: Killed more people than cancer.’”

With some 130,000 American troops in Iraq, and another 16,000 or so in Afghanistan, it’s unforgivable that most news organizations fail to assign reporters to do this sort of work.

The wars in these two countries exist for most Americans as little more than a political abstraction, but if the reading public can be put, however briefly, in the boots of the troops, we might all better understand what, exactly, is going on.

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