Tuesday May 21, 2013
Two Ways to Cover the War in AfghanistanTim King Salem-News.com
Scott Kesterson says the Canadian government and military are satisfied with his work, but Canadian soldiers and their families allege that his approach may have been reckless.
(SALEM, Ore.) - I was one of two Oregon television/Internet reporters who were embedded with the Oregon National Guard's recently returned 41st Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan.
My intention was to remain focused primarily on U.S. Army National Guard units, and that is what I did in the two months that I spent there.
Kesterson's reports depicting Canadian soldiers in battle were heavily discussed by U.S. troops. But those same reports also continue to draw sharp criticism from Canadian soldiers, families and the country's military.
Shocking images from the battlefield are the most poignant aspect of war coverage. They convey the carnage and the human aspect of what soldiers experience in combat. Beginning with Matthew Brady in the American Civil War, images of dead men and the ultimate meaning of war has been expressed in a permanent visual record.
But if you ask most people who have been to a war what it is really like, the average vet will tell you it is boredom most of the time, broken up by occasional, frightful moments.
So when it comes to war coverage, the only truthful way to cover it is to really cover it; meaning the daily life, not just the occasional firefight.
Perhaps the biggest reason is that soldiers all have families, and those loved ones are incredibly receptive to knowing what it is really like in a war theater. I had the honor and privilege of learning that.
I was there to specifically cover the operations of the Oregon National Guard's 900 soldiers deployed there for a year with a specific mission to train the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan National Police during the latter months of their tour.
One person I heard about often was an independent journalist named Scott Kesterson who was associated with the Oregonian Newspaper and Portland, Oregon television station KGW.
Kesterson had joined the deployment in the earliest stages, training with them at Camp Shelby, Mississippi prior to going overseas with them. He stayed for most if not all of the deployment.
Unlike Scott, I joined the deployment in mid tour, arriving in country in November of 2006. In addition to Salem-News.com, I would also spend the next two months reporting for Portland, Oregon television station KPTV.
Close friends from the Oregon Guard told me that Kesterson had been having good success at what he was there to accomplish, though Oregon troops were no longer a subject of his apparent focus.
I remember emailing this fellow photojournalist, inquiring as to whether I could bring him supplies in Kandahar, but received no reply.
I then began hearing about Kesterson's growing list of videos, which he shot on a small video camera. The reports I received about Kesterson turned to complaints over time though, as I spoke with Canadian military friends I had made at the Kabul Military Training Center in Afghanistan's capitol city.
Ujjal Dosanjh with the Canadian government made this statement to The Star in Toronto over both Kesterson's videos and others posted on YouTube by Canadian forces, "It is quite likely that they could pose a danger, if they disclose operational tactics." He stopped short of saying that any problems were directly attributed to Kesterson.
I was busy shooting stories on infantry patrols, covering the restoration of a Kabul hospital by Americans in their spare time, I covered a humanitarian aid mission in a remote, snowbound Afghan village high in the mountains, and silly things like a snow ball fight between soldiers.
During this time I gained a heightened sense of appreciation of the U.S. mission, particularly that of the National Guard units, who are a group of professional civilian soldiers, somewhat different from their counterparts in the regular Army.
I was moved by what I recorded and the stories that I told. Internet and television viewers saw the stories and so many mothers and wives have written thanks for those reports that I have a hard time keeping them straight.
But as time went by and the missions I went on and the places that I visited changed, I kept hearing more disturbing things about the work "the other" photographer was doing there.
Then I was told by a British Royal Marine that Kesterson had alienated a group of them over some of his reporting. When I say "reporting" I use the term somewhat loosely, because Kesterson's work is not that of the typical reporter. The type of video presentations he puts together are what we refer to as a "natural sound piece" or "photo essays" which do not include narration.
Sometimes they are the simplest and best kind of report that a person can produce, but it can be difficult to tell stories without narration, particularly when there are complex elements to be explained.
It turns out that the reason I kept hearing negative reports about Kesterson is that according to several people, he may have violated the rules of the embed agreement by releasing footage that Canadian soldiers believed may have compromised their safety.
The wife of one Canadian soldier who wrote to us, says at first she was excited to hear about Kesterson's coverage of her husband's Army unit. But she says she was very troubled after he was criticized by the Canadian military over video he posted on YouTub- video that may have run afoul of rules that were in place.
"What was the point of Mr. Kesterson's releasing the video if it was against DND's policy?" She asked. "Does he feel better knowing how many families he upset and only further added more fuel to the fire! I wonder if Mr. Kesterson sleeps at night."
This military wife says she is very tuned into the soldier's mission, as much as she can be, and she says she doesn't want to be viewed as being "anti-media" or "overly worried". She says she tried to learn more from Kesterson himself.
"I wrote him an email detailing how much his actions had upset me and asked why he released such video tapes knowing it could endanger lives of our soldiers. Did his few minutes of fame make him more a man? Did it fill in a void that is so big in his life he felt the need to disrespect rules and just do as he wish?"
Responding to the criticism, Kesterson contends that he had not crossed any of the rules imposed on embedded reporters.
"There was no violation of embed rules. Had I violated the embed rules I would have been expelled. Being that my embed was 15 months in duration, falling under approval from 1st Army and SETCOM, there was a great deal of scrutiny of the project."
The wife of the Canadian soldier who wrote to me put it this way.
"During this time last year I was a wreck. We had lost 6 soldiers in a span of 6 days. 5 of those soldiers were days away from completing their 6 month tour and the 6th soldier was actually my neighbour who had the same 'statistics' as my husband as in he was 33 yrs old, and the father of 3 children."
She says that soldier and her husband were close friends in Canada. Still reeling from the shock of losing the other men, she said it was tough to read Canadian coverage of how Mr. Kesterson's video tapes were potentially making their jobs as soldiers more deadly.
"Endangering the lives of our soldiers only made me more upset and scared out of my mind. I had enough to contend with just keeping it together day to day with raising 3 children and having a husband in a war zone."
Kesterson says the footage was a rare exception in the recent history of the Canadian military.
"The Canadian footage you speak of was some of the first combat footage taken of Canadian troops in contact since the Korean War. My access to Canadian soldiers occurred during Operation Mountain Thrust and was approved by Task Force Phoenix-V Regional Command South under Col. Petrucci as well as the Canadian Task Force Orion under LTC Hope."
He says both the US and Canadians were under the same command at that time, CJTF-76, and therefore bound by the same embed rules.
"Since the Canadians were to employ elements of the Afghan National Army in Operation Mountain Thrust, Embedded Training Teams from Task Force Phoenix-V were also deployed. However, since the operation was under Canadian control, it was necessary for me to gain approval from Canadian command as well prior to any movement into to field. All approvals were given and my access, therefore, to Canadian soldiers was in full accordance with my embed rules."
Another Canadian soldier who wrote to Salem-News.com says his contact with Kesterson was limited, but challenging.
"He and I only had correspondence once... it was in regards to a enemy threat indications that I posted as a bulletin thru sandbox... he asked why he should be kept to high standards of OPSEC while I gave away info... I responded by letting him know that the benefit of sharing this info with the allies outweighed the chance that an en(emy) might know we are aware of that weapon or tactic... he left that letter unanswered..." Operation Sandbox is a site on the Internet used by Canadian soldiers.
I found myself personally absorbed by the platoons and convoys I went out on patrol with, shooting video but also being part of the program; looking for suspicious activity, even riding "shotgun" in a HUMVEE traveling hundreds of miles through Afghanistan when we were down to myself, a driver, machine gunner and Afghan interpreter.
But I never lost site of why I was there, the same reason any journalist should go to war, and that is to capture the overall experience and not limit the coverage strictly to combat and tragedy.
I truly enjoyed the Oregon National Guard soldiers I worked with, and most held a much higher opinion of Kesterson and his work than the Canadians. That said, Kesterson spent more time, if not nearly all of his time in Afghanistan, with Canadian forces.
That too seems contrary to the overall idea of being from Oregon, and going to where more than 900 of the state's troops are based. Few people fully appreciate that Oregon State troops were in the point position for in Afghanistan, until recently, when their tour ended.
In fact, many soldiers in the Oregon Guard's 41st Combat Brigade Team were from National Guard units in other states. They became attached to Oregon specifically so they could join the deployment to Afghanistan. So it seems logical that this group was more than worthy of special attention. But Kesterson was more interested in the combat of the Canadians.
Another person contacting me about Kesterson wrote this more positive remark:
"Kesterson's video is a fair portrayal of the combat that we have done and seen, I guess it is important to inform the public what we sometimes go through, but the fact is, there is more going on there than just that. What journalists also need to report is the good that we do for the country."
Indeed, people never spoke about Kesterson being less than brave, and I understand he even helped save the life of a soldier who had been wounded in combat. I read a compelling story he wrote about watching an enemy soldier breathe his last breaths after being struck down in combat.
When Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski visited Camp Phoenix at Kabul, I was there and so was Kesterson. We spent perhaps 15 seconds talking, but he was short on time and so I was unable to visit this person I had heard so much about.
When Oregon Guard Colonel Douglas Pritt introduced Kesterson to the Governor, the General stated that Kesterson had, "seen more combat than most of his soldiers."
One Canadian soldier says that glorifying the fighting to the point that they become numb to it, misses the point.
"We forget what is important like the mission, as the public sees only the 'exciting' aspect of our job, the public begins to question the mission, then support for our forces decline. Kesterson can tape or report anything he wants, we are free to do so, but there should be a fine balance, perhaps a less lackluster report of the boring things we do, not gluing the TV and internet viewers to the action, but telling them what is all going on, perhaps our support would be much greater."
In my experience, it is always important to look at the bigger picture. I tried to show the positive side, and there were many, but I also encountered aspects of the war that were problematic.
I remember being angry over the small numbers of soldiers on some remote combat bases who were overworked, yet not complaining. I wrote about it. I recall learning that our government was going to take away the Afghan Army's cheap and effective AK-47 rifle and replace it with the more complex M-16. I talked to people about it and I have written two substantial reports about it.
In my opinion, that is what we are supposed to do. It doesn't always match the wishes of military commands and that is not our goal, but it is honest and fair reporting and I have detected little resentment over most of it. Unfortunately, the same is not true for all journalists.
"As far as I am personally concerned," the Canadian soldier's wife added, "Mr. Kesterson took advantage of the Canadian forces and shoved it back in my face. He crossed a line without any regard to anyone and thought only of himself. It is very obvious to anyone who reads what he writes and or shoots that he is self centered and has a huge huge ego to feed."
Kesterson says part of his work will be donated to the Canadian War Museum in Toronto this Fall, 2007.
"Members of the Canadian Public Affairs office will be in attendance. I also did some additional work with Canadian soldiers this past Spring with the approval of both US and Canadian command, and have been invited back to due more work in the future."
Another Canadian soldier in touch with us over the report says the number of Canadians with good opinions of this man's work is a narrow group. "I have picked up that he isn't well respected by the Canadian troops and is only liked by the men he filmed in 2006... the 'red devils' 3VP."
Perhaps members of the Red Devils will add their own thoughts about Kesterson's work in Afghanistan in this story's comment section.
I personally suspect that Scott Kesterson's video in the end probably did not endanger the lives of the Canadian soldiers, but many say they will never reach that same conclusion.
There is no doubt that this Oregonian was very engaged in his role as a war reporter, and he spent substantially more time in country than I did. I attempted to build a bridge as we were both journalists in a war, but that did not come to pass. I am glad that Kesterson responded to contact and represented himself in this story. I may not fully agree with his approach but it seems that some people do.
Note:The Canadian people quoted in this report asked that their names not be used.
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