Michael's Dispatches

The Road to Hell: Part II


27 June 2009

With so many contractors, journalists, and even tourists floating around Afghanistan, some are bound to be kidnapped.  The recent escape by David Rohde provides a happy conclusion, though these things often end up with a bullet in the head, or a head sawed off for all to see.  Kidnappings are so common in Afghanistan that most barely make the news.

The New York Times and big media outlets are being blamed for suppressing the story and thereby giving special treatment to one of their own.  It’s clear that they did give special treatment to one of their own.  In fact, when police lose an officer, they also put special emphasis on the crime, and when soldiers lose one of their own, they also put special emphasis on rescue.  Iraqi soldiers who helped us locate American soldiers were sometimes upset that we barely lifted a finger when their own were captured and brutally tortured.  That the New York Times gave special treatment to one of its own is a fact.  That the U.S. military does the same is a fact.  Maybe it’s human nature.

Months after the kidnapping, I reported a few sentences after the story had been out there on the web, but I also kept subsequent information quiet upon request from related parties.  This was not out of special treatment for journalists but in the name of decency.  There are many soldiers out there who know that I also have not reported information that was free to be reported, but that would jeopardize their lives or the security of the United States or that of our allies.  Scoop be damned.

I am a writer, not a journalist, and do not track down “scoops.”  Some things should not be printed until their time has come, if at all.  When it’s all said and done, and you grow old and grey—if you make it that far—above all else it’s more important to know that you worked with honor above ambition.

War correspondence must be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.  Among the journalists, photographers and writers of the world—of which there must be millions—the true war correspondents are the “special forces.”  How many true war correspondents have been produced in this generation?  The number must be limited to the dozens.

Faces change but the danger is constant.  There is no way around it.  Doing the job safely is impossible.  Some say that the best way to avoid danger is to stay with the troops.  This is completely false.  I spent more time with U.S. troops in Iraq than any correspondent from any organization, and the same might also be true of British forces.  The time with the troops has been far more dangerous than time spent unembedded.  I’ve never been in a shootout in Iraq or Afghanistan other than those times with U.S. or British forces, in which case it would be impossible to remember all the firefights, bombs, sniper attacks, or all the dead bodies.  The most dangerous work that one can do is to embed with our combat troops.  Nothing else comes close.

Yet there is something particularly edgy about going alone, as David Rohde has done.  Only our most highly trained soldiers go out in tiny numbers, and none, to my knowledge, go out the way correspondents do.  When I have showed up at the front gates of U.S. or British bases, the soldiers tend to be astounded or even appalled.  They can’t believe anyone would be dumb or crazy enough go out there without bristling guns, helicopter support, and armor.  But again, the fact is, I have never been attacked while alone, but when I am with U.S. or British forces people all around me get hit and it’s only by the Grace of God that I haven’t been hit.

David Rohde’s journey was peculiar because it’s . . . well, peculiar.  He is a high-profile man associated with a high-profile company.  Otherwise, his kidnapping was just one of probably hundreds, or more.

The dangers of going unembedded are different than when with soldiers.  I could give some hints that could increase the safety of correspondents and contractors, but those hints are not for public discussion other than this: If you are a civilian contractor or journalist who goes into areas with possibility of kidnapping, it’s important to give written permission for a rescue attempt.  For servicemembers, no permission would be needed, but journalists, contractors and NGOs will likely not be rescued without permission from a spouse or close relative, unless that permission was granted in advance.  Precious time will be lost gaining those permissions.  Most rescues are better done immediately.

There have been times when rescues could have occurred but permission was slow in coming.  Our “rescue people” are the best in the world.  I cannot address the situation of David Rohde because I do not know the facts, other than that he was kidnapped in Afghanistan and taken to Pakistan.  After he hit Pakistan, everything changed.  The first days after a kidnapping are crucial.

This rescue is a prime example:

US Commandos Rescue American Hostage Near Kabul
AP Exclusive: US Special Forces rescue American held captive near Kabul for 2 months

Last year, a senior defense official gave me a casual briefing on this operation.  Apparently, our folks knew the entire time where the hostage was being held.   Our people were ready to go on a moment’s notice.  The family, I was told, refused to give permission to conduct a rescue attempt.  Finally, when their hope began to wane, the family agreed to the rescue attempt and he was rescued immediately.  There have been other rescues.

After ten French soldiers were killed near Sarobi, Afghanistan, and U.S. Army admin hassles precluded my embedding with combat forces, I went to hear the villagers’ side of the story.  (Amazing how ink that could have gone to our own forces got dashed by paperwork.)  Surely the trip was very dangerous but the insight was valuable and was published under “The Road to Hell.”

Shortly after I went there, a female reporter tried to retrace the steps and got kidnapped.  In fact, I was told by a close source that my interpreter, “Zee,” was involved in her kidnapping and that he was arrested:

ASIA: Kidnapped Dutch journalist freed: employer
07 Nov 2008 9:35 PM

KABUL, Nov 7 AFP - A Dutch journalist kidnapped by suspected Taliban rebels in Afghanistan a week ago was freed today and was shocked but in good health, her employer said.

The woman, whose name was not released, was captured on Saturday last week while she was en route to do a story about militants who had killed 10 French soldiers in August, an editor at the Belgian P-magazine told AFP.

"Whether she was abducted on the way to them or by them we are not sure," Michael Lescroart told AFP from Belgium.

"She was released this morning," he said.

The woman was captured in the Sarobi district, about 50km from the Afghan capital Kabul.

The kidnappers had claimed to be from the insurgent Taliban, Lescroart said. There had been a ransom demand but he refused to comment further.

Media in Afghanistan had been aware of the kidnapping but had not reported on it after being told it could endanger the journalist.

Asked about this, Lescroart said: "The media blackout did not help her case- it saved her life."

"I think it helped because we were afraid if she was in the media, they could set an example and that is what we wanted to avoid," he said.

The journalist, in her late 30s, was fine but shocked, Lescroart said.

She had been through a medical check-up at a NATO hospital.

The French soldiers were killed in Sarobi in August in the deadliest groundbattle for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force since foreign troops arrived in Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban government.

And so that’s about it.  I sat on David Rohde information and am happy to have done so.  Would the New York Times have done the same for a soldier or for me?  That would be their decision.

Michael Yon

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Jennifer MackInday · 12 years ago
    Michael - thank you for the continued coverage. Keep the dispatches coming and stay safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Valerie · 12 years ago
    Michael...what you write about...the horror of it....the human suffering....thank you for telling us. God bless you for willingly exposing yourself to the dangers so you may inform us...and remember we admire and appreciate you. Bless you always and keep you safe.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ron Crawford ...Infi · 12 years ago
    I quote your own words back to you, " War correspondence must be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Among the journalists, photographers and writers of the world—of which there must be millions—the true war correspondents are the “special forces.” How many true war correspondents have been produced in this generation? The number must be limited to the dozens.". .... And of that dozen of the "special forces" I pray for your safety. Thank you for your special courage and gift of journalism. This is a first for me....honoring and respecting a journalist, normally among the fifth column of "enemies within". Michael, you are a special treasure. Semper Fi, brother.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ron Crawford ...Infi · 12 years ago
    I'm going to quote you back to you, "War correspondence must be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Among the journalists, photographers and writers of the world—of which there must be millions—the true war correspondents are the “special forces.” How many true war correspondents have been produced in this generation? The number must be limited to the dozens."
    Amen, Michaell and you are among the elite of that number. Your courage and heart shines through. Semper Fi. You demonstate and live a new standard of honor among journalists. Your miloitary training and innate character and morality give depth to your observations... I thank you for your contribution and am so glad that a man of honor is doing the job of reporting on the actions of our men and women of valor. The American soldier is a hero that goes unsung. You are serving your country in a way that few could. Thank you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    K C · 12 years ago
    I just finished reading an amazing book Invisible History Afghanistan's Untold Story. You and Your fellow writers through your words and photo's are giving us another chapter to the sadly invisible History Of a sadly torn country. Thank You. If you have not read this book please do, for us to be able to fix a torn country we must understand where this country has been and why.... with your help I am so understanding. Again - If I ever won the lotto you would have my 10% tithe. Stay Safe and stick to your better judgment.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Kevin ONeill · 12 years ago
    I enjoy your commentary, even when it's unpleasant news. You're writing the unvarnished truth. I appreciate it. I agree with keeping news of kidnappings quiet, and I agree with the NYT decision (I don't agree with much of what that rag does and says) to remain silent about David Rohde. He was one of their own. But why couldn't they have kept quiet about some of the stuff they printed that jeopardized OUR own, even when asked by officials of the government to withhold publication? How many days did they go on and on about Abu Ghraib? Why did they tell the world how we were tracking Al Qaeda finances? Etc, etc. In the old days they wouldn't have printed that stuff. I don't think most people are upset so much by the fact that they were silent on Mr. Rohde as by the fact they were silent about that but blabbed to the world about stuff that hurt our troops and our country, thereby giving aid to the enemy. IMNHO that's unforgivable. IMNHO if that's not treason, it should be. Keep up the good work. God bless and protect you.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    S.A. · 12 years ago
    Interesting post. But it does raise questions: Is there a difference between a 'war correspondent' and a 'military correspondent'? And why is this even important?

    I would argue that it is impossible to call oneself a true 'war correspondent' by focusing mostly on the uniformed forces involved--that is, by spending most of your time embedded. That is like calling oneself chef--but only focusing on cooking sauces, or desserts. Warfare today is, sadly, mostly a civilian horror show. The vast majority of war victims--those maimed, blown up, massacred, sniped, targeted for mass death--aren't soldiers; they're civilians. We have lost more than 4,000 brave troops in Iraq. At the same time, there have been TENS OF THOUSANDS of Iraqi civilians violently killed in that war zone by all sorts of belligerent parties. The same hugely lopsided death ratio goes for Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Vietnam, Korea, World War II--pretty much every in modern times. (Basically, ever since uniformed armies stopped popping off at each other on set-piece battlefields, and started targeting civilian population centers.) So any journalist who claims to be a war correspondent by only telling the military angle--good, bad or indifferent--is missing a huge part of any war's real story; missing its vast human sweep; its larger tragedies and triumphs. Indeed, covering, say, the Iraq war from the inside a rd Marine Bradley, or on foot patrol with the Army's 4th ID, is covering only a relatively tiny piece of war's truer, more complex (and yes, more violent) mosaic. This is why I would call Mr. Yon primarily a military reporter, not a war reporter. I say this with all due respect, because he's a smart, ballsy guy and my hat's off to him and his good work. But again, especially in today’s murky civilian-targeted wars, like those involving terrorism, he's missing most of the picture. I'm not suggesting this is bad. We all go where our strengths lie. But it's war from a smaller window.

    Finally, as a recovering conflict reporter myself (having 'embedded' with all sorts and sides in wars over the past 15 years--the KLA in Kosovo; the Ethiopian army in a land war that most people never heard about but which involving a quarter million men; the brutal Mai Mai militias of Congo; the 50,000 war refugees fleeing Mogadishu; the Pesh Merga; the Northern Alliance; the US Army in Iraq, the thousands of raped women wandering like lost souls in the war zones of the Cong I have often found it strange, in my experience, that best war correspondents are those who don't even call themselves that. Those two glamorous words—‘war’ and ‘correspondent’--draw attention to the reporter in a slightly unsavory way. There is a good equivalent in the military world: the best fighting men and women are usually those individuals who go about the business of war quietly, professionally, without making a big deal about how dangerous their job is.

    That's why, when I see correspondents on CNN or Fox dressed in desert-sand ballistic vests, hyperventilating about the crack and whine of bullets, it makes me ill. They're often careerists leaching off the bloodshed of others--troops or civilians--to advance themselves. The absolute finest war correspondents, in my humble opinion--the 'few dozen' that Mr. Yon mentions above--are the one's you've never heard about. That’s because they don't go around advertising themselves: these are the heroic, no-showbiz types like Hrvoje Hranjski, shot through the chest in killing fields of Congo (and still working); Chuck Sudetic who toiled bravely for years in civilian slaughterhouse of Sarajevo; and, until his recent hostage drama in Afghanistan, the relatively unknown David Rohde, who has covered the Balkans, Iraq, the Intifada and Afghanistan, and who single-handedly, and at great personal cost, exposed the genocide at Srebrenica--and who I'm pretty sure has never bothered to call himself a 'war correspondent.'

    My apologies for this extra-long note.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    J.H. · 12 years ago
    S.A. save the long comments on your pass personal issues, there is a war going on and for now no one cares if the glass half full or half empty; War or Military correspondent. Say thank you Mr. Yon for the risk you take with your life to give up any true news from the war.....for your risk please call yourself whatever you like. S.A. don't tell me what you did, just tell me what you did lately......I know what Mr. Yon did becuase I can read about it all over the news today!
    Mr. Yon great job at being a "IN HARMS WAY CORRESPONDENT!!!"
  • This commment is unpublished.
    GreenWolf70 · 12 years ago
    ...with reporters. And I have ever since an AP reporter in Sarajevo invented some facts and put my name to them. Mr. Yon, however is quite different. I hear the soldier in his reports and appreciate his points of view (although, I do wish he would hit Barry McCaffery with some hard ball questions about politics and Barry's war reports) and I get news about the war that we do not see anywhere else. That is not a hit on Mr. Yon but a realization of the sorry state of the US media. The Big Three network news organizations should lose their status as news organizations and be referred to as "Tabloid and Political Entertainment organizations". Maybe to hit home they should not even be allowed to attend news conferences, unless its celebrity news.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rationalist · 12 years ago
    To J.H.: Being dumb isn't patriotic. It's just dumb. I'm surprised you could even make it through S.A.'s post above, judging by your almost illiterate response. Glad you are at least reading Michael Yon, though. He'll expand your mind beyond what seems like your normal 'reading' fare: Sgt. Rock comic books.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    J.H. · 12 years ago
    To Rationalist: you seemed to take my comments of S.A.'s post awful personally.....which makes me wonder if your not S.A. trying to stick up for yourself. Is the glass half full or half empty for S.A. who really cares, he injected his own personal "how I was a hero and done wrong kind of story in the comments sect."

    He became fair game, he are some of his own words:

    as a recovering conflict reporter myself
    having 'embedded' with all sorts and sides in wars
    that best war correspondents are those who don't even call themselves that.
    That's why, when I see correspondents on CNN or Fox dressed in desert-sand ballistic vests, hyperventilating about the crack and whine of bullets, it makes me ill.
    They're often careerists leaching

    He would be better keep those type of personal hero/hate issues to himself.
    I would rather read SGT. ROCK than to have smoke blown up my..........
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