More Patriotism and the Press in Times of War

Regarding the Bing West column that I mentioned earlier, Andrew Exum and Spencer Ackerman push back very, very, veryhard against West’s criticisms of Nir Rosen. In rereading West’s piece,it strikes me as less thoughtful than it did earlier this morning, butstill thought-provoking, which is probably why I passed over his biases(the hostile tone towards the press and his criticisms of Bob Gates,for instance) and zeroed in on the ethical/legal questions he raised.

When I first read Rosen’s article,I never considered Rosen a traitor, or worthy of being shot, asAckerman claim West suggests. But it does seem valid to point out thatRosen chose to venture into a very gray area where journalistic ethicsand patriotic duty become difficult to pin down. I didn’t read West’sdescription of WWII-era summary executions of non-uniformed enemycombatants as a call for Rosen’s head, but more as a factual statementabout how the battlefield loathes ambiguity. It’s one Rosen himselfimplicitly recognized in this passage from the original article:

Inthe morning, I awake to the drone of military planes overhead. Steppingoutside, I see a convoy of American armored vehicles a mile away. Ifight the urge to walk to them and beg for rescue. Even if they don’tmistake me for Taliban and shoot me themselves, approaching them woulddoom everybody who had helped me.

To me, it goes without sayingthat when you’re in a war zone with your life being threatened by enemycombatants, and you decide that it’s unsafe to seek help from Americansoldiers, you’re definitely in a legally ambiguous situation, verylikely in an ethically ambiguous situation, and quite possibly in amorally ambiguous situation. The fact that throughout the article,Rosen is regarded suspiciously as a spy by just about everyone hecrosses further underlines the point. Meanwhile, the fact that one ofthe defenses rolled out on his behalf is that thiskind of reporting actually does serve a useful intelligence functiondilutes the argument for a journalistic ethics that transcendsnationality or nationalism.

Rosen’sdecision to not just report from behind enemy lines, but to actuallyembed with enemy forces raises further questions about the role ofjournalism in times of war, in general, and in insurgencies inparticular. To be in contact with the Taliban is one thing, and forWest to reproach a Reuters correspondent on that score is absurd. To beprivy, on the other hand, to operational information that will costAmerican lives without doing anything about it raises a whole other setof questions. Rosen never actually suggests that occurred, but heessentially put himself in a situation where it was possible andeven likely that it would.

It might help to frame the questionmore precisely with some unambiguous hypotheticals. Imagine an Americanreporter who, in the course of reporting a piece on a skinhead gang inAmerica, learned of their plans to blow up a government facility. Idon’t think many people would argue that journalistic ethics stand inthe way of a legal and ethical obligation to report the plot to theauthorities. Now, imagine the same thing, only it’s an Americanreporter in the course of reporting a piece on a skinhead gang inGermany. Once again, I think the legal and ethical obligation is toreport it.

So what about the nature of war, or the AfghanistanWar, changes the weight of the argument? I don’t think it’s as clearcut as West or Rosen’s supporters suggest. And as I said this morning,I don’t have a definitive answer myself. But I think it’s a validquestion. And I’m certain, because I don’t for a second doubt Rosen’spatriotism, that if he had come back from this assignment knowing thatAmerican soldiers had died because he silently watched an operationthat targeted them, he would be haunted by that question for the restof his life.

Finally, I repeat my initial response to Rosen’s article,which is that instead of the Afghanistan War, which was the ostensiblesubject of the piece, the story has become Rosen himself. The onlydifference is that now I don’t think that’s a shame. It’s anopportunity to examine a challenging question. Feel free to weigh invia email. I will post everything of interest.