May 1 2003

When Journalists Attack

The Boston Herald's loose cannon

Boston Herald correspondent Jules Crittenden, who covered the Iraq War as an embedded journalist, is a writer whose blunt prose deals in absolutes: good vs. evil, life and death.

But there’s one dichotomy that Crittenden doesn’t draw so clearly: reporter vs. participant. Frequently drawing comparisons between “embeds” such as himself and the troops with whom they travel, Crittenden seemed to have crossed the line and effectively became a combatant in the war he was assigned to cover.

In a column Crittenden wrote for the Poynter Institute (Poynter Online, 4/11/03), he admitted that while the unit he was following was on patrol outside one of Saddam’s palaces, he aided in the killing of Iraqis. The piece detailed the event in classic Crittenden:

I spotted the silhouettes of several Iraqi soldiers looking at us from the shadows 20 feet to our left. I shouted, “There’s three of the f—— right there.””Where are the f——?” [Sgt. Dan] Howison said, spinning around in his hatch.

“The f—— are right there,” I said, pointing.

“There?” he said, opening up with the .50 [caliber]. I saw one man’s body splatter as the large-caliber bullets ripped it up. The man behind him appeared to be rising, and was cut down by repeated bursts.

“There’s another f—— over there,” I told Howison.

To his critics, he had this to say:

I’m sure there are some people who will question my ethics, my objectivity, etc. I’ll keep the argument short. Screw them, they weren’t there. But they are welcome to join me next time if they care to test their professionalism.

Crittenden’s admission that he assisted in the killing of three human beings does much more than raise questions about his professionalism (his reference to one side in the conflict he was covering as “fuckers” alone does that). War correspondents are civilians, afforded specific protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention. By picking up a weapon or assisting in the fighting, they not only strip themselves of that protection, they also put every other journalist covering the war in jeopardy by blurring the line separating reporters from combatants.

But Crittenden seems more concerned with reporting an exciting action tale than in putting it in any kind of context. A different reporter, for example, might have explored the question of whether shooting of personnel with high-caliber automatic weapons is itself a violation of the Geneva Convention. The argument is that the damage caused to a human body by the force of such rounds makes it an inhumane form of warfare.

The Desert Storm memoir Jarhead by former Marine Corps sniper Anthony Swofford details his unit’s understanding of the law regarding .50 caliber guns. Swofford’s platoon was among the first to use the new .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifle, but was first given a stern warning by the instructor.

By the way, you know you can’t hit a human target with a .50-caliber weapon, right? It’s in the Geneva Convention. So you hit the gas tank on their vehicle, and they get blown the hell up, but you can’t target some lonely guard or a couple of towlies in an OP calling in bombs.

Since his return to the U.S., Crittenden has retold his story to sympathetic questioners on CNBC (4/21/03) and CNN (4/23/03). “That was their bad day. It wasn’t mine,” he told CNBC. “So I sleep well at night.”

The Herald correspondent seems to have gotten more criticism for carrying home illegal loot than for helping to kill people. Characteristically, he defended his bringing home swag by blurring the lines between himself and military personnel (Boston Globe, 4/24/03), pointing to “the time-honored tradition among soldiers of bringing home reminders of some of the most intense experiences of their lives. There was no exception to that historic practice in this war until we began arriving home.”