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.