"That was weird" said my wife after watching the 60 Minutes segment Sunday night, portraying the 101st Airborne serving in one of Afghanistan deadliest combat zones. Yet it was a feel-good piece, allowing the American TV viewing audience a "sneak peek" into the daily lives of heroic U.S. soldiers serving near the Pakistan border.
For the average viewer, it was a glimpse into the real challenges faced in this conflict - difficult terrain and an invisible enemy. Our soldiers are also extremely frustrated that the enemy can safely hide over the Pakistan border where our hands are tied.
The segment followed a troop on their daily rounds, securing an important roadway and clearing mountain passes, but delivered "engagement" when our troops attacked a band of "suspicious" armed men walking through the mountains. Later, U.S. ground troops came under fire - on camera - showing how we located and killed several insurgents. One of ours was also winged in the arm, treated on the spot by medics and airlifted out within minutes. Also during the skirmish, one soldier found a video camera in a corn patch which had on it footage of over 50 heavily armed insurgents training and blowing stuff up - and our soldiers being surveilled.
The piece took a more somber downturn when the troop lost four soldiers and an Afghani translator to a roadside bomb. In asking these young soldiers their feelings, one offered this mission would take over a decade. Another told the correspondent what he told his daughter - that we were helping a bunch of good guys beat the bad guys.
This "imbedded" piece, something we haven't seen much of since the original Iraqi invasion - showed some of our most experienced troops at their best, facing serious, daily peril and explaining the exasperating bureaucratic limitations imposed by the Pakistanis.
For the student of media manipulation, this report was grossly confusing. The key moment was 60 Minute's too-brief description of the enemy, claiming the insurgents attacking our troops were being guided by warlord Jalauddin Haqqani who is "closely allied" with Al Qaeda and who shares their common goal of opposing the American occupation.
Hmm. That went by pretty fast. A simple Google search shows Haqqani was actually a paid CIA asset during the Soviet occupation and later an asset of Pakistan's ISI, with at least one Pakistani website claiming Haqqani and his son are today being made scapegoats by the U.S., long mired in Afghanistan. It is also not clear whether Haqqani is even alive. This background apparently was too complicated for 60 Minutes, choosing to focus solely on the perspectives of the soldiers on the ground - and their commanders pleas for immediate help.
Reminding us why imbedded reports cannot be real journalism, the segment lacked essential balance, failing to consider the perspectives of those who feel this war is unjust or unnecessary, or even that it's being conducted improperly. The reporter who travels with one side of a conflict for a month, depending on them for their safety and getting to know them personally may find it difficult to retain her objectivity.
Portraying "the enemy" consisted of quick glimpses of burnt corpses after they were shot up. But also missing was the evidence that concretely ties these people being killed in the mountains to 9/11, al Qaeda, the Taliban or any other "official" terrorist group. By the end of the report, my wife and I felt great admiration for the troops, but we were left confounded as to who these people fighting them were and what they were fighting for in the desolate mountains.
What were we told? What we are doing there - guarding a highway between Kabul and points East that enables vehicle traffic, thereby enabling commerce, trade and "development". The road being paved will be paid by $121 million in U.S. taxpayer money.
Again the words of the staunchly Conservative war hero Dwight Eisenhower haunt us - the military-industrial complex uses fear and hate in order to keep the production lines humming, building bombs and warplanes with funds that could have built schools, bridges and roads. The profiteers speak to the government through lobbyists and campaign gifts, and speak to us through the media, negotiating with networks to barter access for "messaging".
In this case, we eyewitnessed an attack on our soldiers attacked while cameras were rolling, getting shot and bleeding all over the place. In exchange for this rarely seen combat footage, we saw a "news" report that supports a strong case for an increase in funding and troop levels. In fact, the piece portrays our gutsy soldiers (quite accurately) as the victims of underfunding and prohibitions on pursuing insurgents into Pakistani territory.
In order to help our GIs, we as viewers have been "messaged" or "conditioned" - to press for an increase in troop levels and funding for a new "surge" in Afghanistan.
We should also help the troops get that access into now-nuclear Pakistan, even if this exacerbates the same complex tribal conflicts that have plagued the region for thousands of years. Also unreported on the network news? 190,000 Pakistani refugees are abandoning their homes in tribal areas because of the violence between the Pakistani military and the Taliban. This could create fertile ground for recruiting insurgents whose families are facing starvation in tents this winter.
As a long-time 60 Minutes watcher, I'm disappointed with the lack of depth in this report and the many angles of the overarching conflict left unaddressed. Personally, I side with the experts who have long felt the response to 9/11 should have been a more patient, carefully measured and long-term international law enforcement matter. Seven years out, I wonder if the young gunmen in those mountains even understand the global "war on terror" - the concept of "the West", sandwiched between an armed occupying superpower (you're with us or against us), and brutal tribal chiefs who press young men to fight or mount suicide missions under threat of kidnapping or murder of their families.
60 Minutes made little attempt to explain this enemy's perceptions of us, nor the many who feel we need stepped up diplomatic or humanitarian efforts. Showing this blind "acceptance" of the war, CBS displays a remarkable under-representation for popular public sentiment.
Off the TV network "Matrix", however, Afghanistan's own emerging antiwar movement has been attempting to negotiate truces between the Taliban and Afghan state forces, showing us a possible track we could have taken years ago.