By Bing West
Good for Dave Dilegge for speaking out in Small Wars Journal about the October issue of Rolling Stone magazine, wherein Nir Rosen, an American reporter, described his visit with Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Rosen left no doubt about his active cooperation with the Taliban fighters. "They have promised to take me to see the Taliban in action: going out on patrols, conducting attacks," he wrote, ".... once we are on the road we should take the batteries out of our phones, to prevent anyone from tracking us."
Having told the reader what his intent was, Rosen described the Taliban as "religious students who knew little about the rest of the world and cared only about liberating their country from oppressive warlords." Rosen concluded his piece by declaring that the war was lost -- unless we negotiated an ending with the Taliban.
But in addition to providing the Taliban with a propaganda coup, did he violate moral strictures, given that killing Americans was an objective of the very Taliban attacks he wanted to watch? Is a journalist guided by virtues higher than those of patriotism or nationalism? Does a journalist transcend the laws and norms governing other American citizens? And who is not a journalist, if every blog and e-mail is a branch of journalism?
This isn't an obvious call in journalistic circles. Last year, David Schlesinger, chief editor for Reuters, e-mailed to me from the UK that "we (Reuters) are regularly in contact with established Taliban spokespeople via email and satellite phone to get the Taliban's view of various news events. Our competitors are as well. This is the normal and essential journalistic practice we follow anywhere in the world -- we report the views of all sides in a conflict without taking any side."
While he did not say that Reuters sent correspondents into Taliban camps, his belief that not "taking any side" was an "essential journalistic practice" reveals an attitude that transcends patriotism and cries our for a national debate. It is doubtful if Reuters in 1941 would have interviewed Nazis while informing fellow Londoners that Reuters was not "taking any side". And although most Americans who fought in Vietnam were outraged when Jane Fonda posed with North Vietnamese soldiers in 1970, the American government never said a word about her conduct, and millions of Americans supported her. Vietnam affirmed an American tradition of journalistic "independence" during a war.
Rosen is in elevated journalistic company in detaching from the American soldiers and their cause. In describing his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins wrote, "This was not my war. This was not my army." Whose army, then, was it?
Rosen described how he and two Taliban fighters deceived the guards at a government checkpoint. Suppose during World War II an American reporter had sneaked through the lines with two German officers wearing civilian clothes. "When we caught enemy combatants out of uniform in the 1940s," a veteran wrote in The American Heritage, "we sometimes simply executed them." The Greatest Generation had a direct way of dealing with moral ambiguity.
"I am a guest of the Taliban." Rosen wrote. Supposing in 1944 he had written, "I am a guest of the Waffen SS." It is doubtful if Rolling Stone would have published Rosen's article during World War II. The norms and values of American society have changed enormously in the past half-century.
Yet had Rosen been captured by Afghan soldiers, it is likely Rolling Stone magazine would have asked the US military to intercede for his release. But if the reporter has no obligation toward the soldier, does the soldier have the obligation to protect the journalist? Should Rosen, if captured, have been released or put on trial for aiding or abetting the enemy?
Not fully trusting the Taliban, Rosen employed the threat of murder more commonly associated with drug lords than with Rolling Stone magazine. "... Those I accompanied knew that they and their families would be killed if anything happened to me," Rosen wrote, alluding to shadowy Afghan associates who had arranged his trip. But supposing Rosen had died and in retaliation six children were beheaded. What is the difference between the Mafia and Rolling Stone, when reporters are protected by threatening to wipe out families?
Most disturbing was the lack of outrage to Rosen's sojourn by the administration, the military, the civilian appointees and the politicians. Secretary of Defense Gates is a cool, detached official who reacts to events. He does not plot a course into the future. He does not project a determination or a vision about how to succeed in Afghanistan. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral William Mullen, calls for a strategic review -- after six years of fighting! - laments that "we cannot kill our way to victory", a vacuous absolution that transfers responsibility for failure to others. Why increase from 32,000 to 50,000 US troops, whose basic training is as riflemen, if the application of force -- killing - is not the objective? A policeman protects the population by arresting criminals; a soldier protects the population by shooting the enemy soldier. Our military succeeds in confusing us all by reverting to Rodney King's plaint that we should all just get along.
When our leaders lack moral clarity and courage, then agnosticism about our mission in Afghanistan is understandable. Rosen's conduct is not the problem; he was taking advantage of American moral lassitude. Our leaders don't stand up for the righteousness of our cause. Why not hang out with the Taliban, if America's leaders see nothing wrong with it?
We are fighting a war. Yet the Department of Defense lacks commitment and passion in the cause. It is morally wrong for an American citizen to deceive friendly troops in order to sneak into enemy territory in the company of enemy soldiers. When not one American official or general will speak out, our Soldiers and Marines who are fighting and dying are let down by their leaders.