War and Duty: Why I Didn't Look Away

Kevin Sites

Los Angeles Times

November 28, 2004

Earlier this month, NBC war correspondent Kevin Sites videotaped a Marine killing a wounded Iraqi in a Fallouja mosque. The shot fired in that footage continues to reverberate. Last Sunday in his blog, Sites filed an open letter to the Marines' 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, with whom he has been embedded. Here are edited excerpts.

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To Devil Dogs of the 3.1:

Since the shooting in the mosque, I've been haunted that I have not been able to tell you directly what I saw or explain the process by which the world came to see it as well. As you know, I'm not some war zone tourist with a camera who doesn't understand that ugly things happen in combat. I've spent most of the last five years covering global conflict. But I have never in my career been a "gotcha" reporter — hoping for people to commit wrongdoings so I can catch them at it.

This week I've even been shocked to see myself painted as some kind of antiwar activist. Anyone who has seen my reporting on television or has read the dispatches on this website is fully aware of the lengths I've gone to play it straight down the middle — not to become a tool of propaganda for the left or the right.

But I find myself a lightning rod for controversy in reporting what I saw occur in front of me, camera rolling. It's time for you to have the facts from me, in my own words, about what I saw without imposing on that Marine guilt or innocence or anything in between….

[It's Saturday morning, a] mosque where 10 insurgents were killed and five wounded on Friday may have been reoccupied overnight. I decide to leave you guys and pick up with one of the infantry squads as they move house-to-house back toward the mosque…. Gunshots [seem] to be coming from inside the mosque. A Marine from my squad yells, "Are there Marines in here?" When we arrive at the front entrance, we see that another squad has already entered before us. The lieutenant asks them, "Are there people inside?" One of the Marines raises his hand signaling five. "Did you shoot them?" the lieutenant asks. "Roger that, sir," the same Marine responds. "Were they armed?" The Marine just shrugs and we all move inside.

Immediately after going in, I see the same black plastic body bags spread around the mosque. The dead from the day before. But more surprising, I see the same five men that were wounded from Friday as well. It appears that one of them is now dead and three are bleeding to death from new gunshot wounds. The fifth is partially covered by a blanket and is in the same place and condition he was in on Friday, near a column. He has not been shot again. I look closely at both the dead and the wounded. There don't appear to be any weapons anywhere.

"These were the same wounded from yesterday," I say to the lieutenant. He takes a look around and goes outside [to radio in the situation]. I see an old man in a red kaffiyeh lying against the back wall. Another is face down next to him, his hand on the old man's lap — as if he were trying to take cover. I squat beside them, inches away and begin to videotape them. Then I notice that the blood coming from the old man's nose is bubbling. A sign he is still breathing. So is the man next to him.

While I continue to tape, a Marine walks up to the other two bodies about 15 feet away, but also lying against the same back wall. Then I hear him say this about one of the men: "He's [obscenity] faking he's dead — he's faking he's [obscenity] dead." Through my viewfinder I can see him raise the muzzle of his rifle in the direction of the wounded Iraqi. There are no sudden movements, no reaching or lunging. However, the Marine could legitimately believe the man poses some kind of danger. Maybe he's going to cover him while another Marine searches for weapons. Instead, he pulls the trigger. There is a small splatter against the back wall and the man's leg slumps down.

"Well, he's dead now," says another Marine in the background. I am still rolling. I feel the deep pit of my stomach. The Marine then abruptly turns away and strides away, right past the fifth wounded insurgent lying next to a column. He is very much alive and peering from his blanket. He is moving, even trying to talk. But for some reason, it seems he did not pose the same apparent "danger" as the other man — though he may have been more capable of hiding a weapon or explosive beneath his blanket. But then two other Marines in the room raise their weapons as the man tries to talk. For a moment, I'm paralyzed, still taping with the old man in the foreground. I get up after a beat and tell the Marines again what I had told the lieutenant, that this man — all of these wounded men — were the same ones from yesterday. That they had been disarmed, treated and left here. At that point the Marine who fired the shot became aware that I was in the room. He came up to me and said, "I didn't know, sir — I didn't know…. "

Making sure you know the basis for my choices after the incident is as important to me as knowing how the incident went down. I did not in any way feel like I had captured some kind of "prize" video. In fact, I was heartsick…. For those who don't practice journalism as a profession, it may be difficult to understand why we must report stories like this at all — especially if they seem to be aberrations, and not representative of the behavior or character of an organization as a whole. The answer is not an easy one. In war, as in life, there are plenty of opportunities to see the full spectrum of good and evil that people are capable of. As journalists, it is our job is to report both — though neither may be fully representative of those people on whom we're reporting….

The Marines have built their proud reputation on fighting for freedoms like the one that allows me to do my job, a job that in some cases may appear to discredit them. But both the leaders and the grunts in the field like you understand that if you lower your standards, if you accept less, then less is what you'll become…. When the Iraqi man in the mosque posed a threat, he was your enemy; when he was subdued, he was your responsibility; when he was killed in front of my eyes and my camera, the story of his death became my responsibility. The burdens of war, as you so well know, are unforgiving for all of us. I pray for your soon and safe return.