I’m “weighing in” on the now controversial rescue operation that freed New York Times reporter Stephen Farrell. The operation also ended in the deaths of a British Special Forces soldier, Farrell’s translator, Sultan Munadi, two civilians, and a Taliban commander.
Before getting into all that, I want to extend my sympathies to the families involved: Munadi’s family, the British soldier, and the two unnamed civilians. It’s a tragic affair, and though most of us in the news will have forgotten it by the weekend, all those who lost loved ones will remember these few days for the rest of their lives. I’m glad Farrell got out, too, though it’s going to be a rough couple of months, to say the least.
Okay, so Drudge is linking to the British papers, quoting folks who are pissed that a Brit died to save a bloody journalist. From the New York Times no less. After he had “repeated warnings.” The quotes:
Another military source said: “This reporter went to this area against the advice of the Afghan police. So thanks very much Stephen Farrell, your irresponsible act has led to the death of one of our boys.”
Tim Collins, a former SAS officer, said the journalist had a “big thank you to give to the people who gave their lives to make up for his mistakes”. He said: “These soldiers were doing their job but I would say Stephen Farrell would be wise not to crow to loudly about his experience because his incompetence has cost a life. Unfortunately in journalism you do come across people who believe they are infallible.”
There’s a bunch of stuff here, and I wanted to give a couple of quick thoughts on it. This is by no means a comprehensive look at the subject of kidnapped journalists.
1. Is it the journalist’s fault he got kidnapped? Well, as I said above, sort of. It’s also kind of a stupid question. He was taking a calculated risk by going to Kunduz to report on a story. War correspondents take calculated risks–it’s what they do.
2. If a journalist really “heeded the warnings” that he got, then he would never even bother leaving home. (The government(both the UK and U.S.) tell civilians pretty bluntly that it’s too dangerous to go to Afghanistan and Iraq.) In this specific case, was Farrell taking too big of a risk? In retrospect, it seems like it, but it always seems like the risk was too big once the dice come up snake eyes. I’m not going to be too quick to criticize him. Every war reporter I know has taken really stupid risks, and some do so on a regular basis. Escape the close calls and your reputation builds, so there are definite incentives to risk taking.
3. However, I do think it’s the journalist’s responsibility to do his best to mitigate those risks, especially when other lives are involved. Drivers, translators, security guards–and even consider the possibility that if you’re a Westerner that gets kidnapped, soldiers will be sent to look for you and might get killed doing so. (So, in a way, I have always felt that it’s my responsibility not to get kidnapped. That being said, once you’re in a conflict zone, anything can happen, even if you take all the precautions, or you can make mistakes or bad decisions, and then…One of my biggest anxieties: I feared getting kidnapped or shot because it would look like I screwed up. The fear of screwing up in my bosses eyes outweighed the physical fear of kidnapping/getting shot.)
4. Is it fair for guys like Tim Collins and the unnamed source to put a guilt trip on Farrell and the media? I call bullshit on that. Both British and American soldiers get killed doing much stupider and worthless shit all the time. (Like dying to eradicate a poppy field or clearing some bumfuck village in Nuristan.) At least in this mission the soldier died heroically during a dramatic rescue operation.
5. Part of going to war as a democracy is having the press around–in modern conflicts, where kidnapping is part of the insurgent arsenal, that’s going to lead to such situations as the one we have here. Collins and the unnamed defense officials are using this incident to score cheap political points in the ongoing war against the media. The UK military didn’t have to intervene, and if our military brain trust was really so concerned about their soldiers lives, then they wouldn’t be in Afghanistan in the first place. PLUS: By rescuing Farrell, you’re depriving the Taliban of ransom money that they could then in theory turn around and use to kill NATO soldiers or destabilize the Afghan government… (Is this a stretch? It actually seems like a legit justification.)
6. Remember, if the soldier hadn’t of died, the military would be “crowing” about what a great success the operation was, and highlighting how awesome Brit SF power is.
7. The soldier who died signed up for the SF, presumably, because he didn’t mind taking these kinds of risks. I’ve met SF guys who live for the chance to go on a rescue operations like this one. It’s terrible that he paid the price with his life. It sucks that dying is part of a soldier’s job description.
8. All involved–the soldier, Farrell, his translator, the Taliban commander who got whacked–are playing/played their parts in the deadly game that is modern conflict. It’s not a game of course, but it might as well be. Each one has decided to risk their life for something they believe in–England, journalism, Afghanistan, Islam, whatever. When mistakes get made, it sometimes cost lives. I really hate that phrase, “when mistakes get made.” Doesn’t seem right to say when people died.
9. Should NATO forces, in the future, try to rescue captured journalists? Or any captured Westerner? Yes–especially since civilian work is supposed to be such an integral part of our strategy in Afghanistan, our nation building. Journalists are part of that, too. What democratic lesson would we be sending to the new Afghanistan government, and to the Taliban, if we said, “Take our journalists, behead them, we won’t lift a finger.”
10. If I ever happen to get kidnapped in a country ending with the suffix ‘stan, I’d like to say thanks in advance to those who’d risk their life to rescue my dumb ass.