The Mendacity Of Ron Harris


Months ago, few Americans ever heard of the embedded reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch. It was not until he launched a smear campaign against Sergeant Jimmy Massey, a Marine who publicly confessed to killing innocent civilians on the road to Baghdad, that Harris made a name for himself in the mainstream media, including CNN. Harris attacked Massey for speaking out about the carnage in Iraq. He questioned Massey’s motives and the veracity of his story.

When Harris made his accusations, however, he did not realize that Massey’s claims about civilian killings were already corroborated by three other Marines with whom he served. Their testimony is recorded on tape by Massey’s publisher and a Danish journalist.

The controversy between the pro-war journalist from St. Louis and the outspoken Marine from the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina became contentious on Democracy Now (5/14/2005) when Massey called Harris a mouthpiece for the Marine Corps brass. He criticized Harris for embellishing and romanticizing military operations in which Massey himself was involved. As Massey began to quote Harris’ story, Harris blurted out: “If that’s what the Marine Corps reported, then that’s what we reported.”  We.  “Oh, wait a minute,” Massey responded. “So you’re saying you report what the Marine Corps reports?…Embedded journalism is not working in Iraq.”

Harris covered the war in Iraq for two tours, from Feb. 23 to April 27 in 2003 and April 1st through Sept. 26 in 2004. His 2003 reports in the Post Dispatch, built around briefings from Lt. Gen. James Conway, Lima Company Commanding Officer Capt. George Schreffler, and Lt. Col. Michael Belcher, portray the invasion as a moral and military triumph. In contrast, Massey, who participated directly in the campaign, describes the unprovoked war as a disaster, a pyrrhic victory. Who really told the truth?
 
According to the tall, good-looking Iraqi-war veteran, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not only swift, it was brutal. “We were like a bunch of cowboys who rode into town shooting up the place. I saw charred bodies in vehicles that were clearly not military vehicles. I saw people dead on the side of the road in civilian clothes.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” Massey said in a recent interview, “the real war did not begin until Iraqis saw us murdering innocent civilians. I mean, they were witnessing their loved ones being murdered by U.S. Marines.” Massey points out that the occupation actually created enemies who did not exist prior to the invasion. That’s the key insight in the Massey story. The indiscriminate destruction, the uncorrected pattern of checkpoint killings, and the callousness of high command generated rage, hatred, and eventually drove Iraqis to resist.
   
On November 5th, 2005, Ron Harris published a front-page attack on Massey, in which he questioned Massey’s claims about civilian casualties. (In his prior articles, Harris claimed that civilian casualties were minimal.)

Now attention turns to Harris, whose own motives and writings invite scrutiny. The controversy concerns not only the trustworthiness of Harris, but the integrity of embedded journalists who are oblivious to U.S. war crimes in Iraq. Massey is a whistle-blower, not only on the military, but on journalists like Harris who have a record of sanitizing the horrors of war.

In the New York Review of Books, November 16, 2005, Michael Massing casts light on the issue of what is being reported from Iraq. During the invasion “there remained firm limits on what could be reported out of Iraq. Especially taboo were frank accounts of the actions of U.S. troops in the field—particularly when those actions resulted in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.” The New York Times, for example, routinely reported civilian deaths caused by insurgents, but rarely mentioned those inflicted by Americans. “U.S. journalists feel queasy about quoting eyewitnesses who offer information that runs counter to statements put out by the U.S. military….The abuses that U.S. troops routinely commit in the field, and their responsibility for the deaths of many thousands of innocent Iraqis, are viewed by the American press as too sensitive for most Americans to see or read about.”

HOW HARRIS SANCTIFIED THE WAR

Harris was embedded with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, and filed at least two or three dispatches every week from February 3rd thorough April 27th, 2003—his first tour. We can learn a lot about the journalistic standards, the methods and mindset, of Ron Harris from the pro-war articles he wrote while in Iraq.

The first and last dispatches in the series are definitive.

“Armed movements,” writes Chris Hedges, “seek divine sanction and the messianic certitude of absolute truth.” Here Harris makes his contribution. The first article links the name of Jesus to the pending invasion. A kind of blasphemy, the Harris piece is an unconcealed attempt to confer religious meaning to a Western war against Arabs.

The opening report is entitled: “Chaplain Seeks To Prepare Marines Spiritually for Battle. He Cites Kurdish Children Gassed By Saddam as Reason for a ‘Just War.’” Describing Sunday services, Harris uncritically quotes Navy chaplain Lt. Darren Stennett, “Like a mighty army moves the Church of God, Brothers we are treading where the Saints have trod.” He describes Stennett leading the Marines in singing:
    “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.
    With the Cross of Jesus going on before.”
    Next, Stennett gives a sermon on the theme of just war. And the Harris article concludes with a quote from the chaplain: “The Marines are doing this for a just cause and that’s to rid the world of evil.”

In his account of the pre-war religious service, Harris refers to the most bellicose story of the Old Testament, the Book of Joshua, the story about the extermination of “infidels” that played an inflammatory role in the Christian Crusades in Medieval times.
 
There is no attempt at objectivity in Harris’ report, no countervailing views, no interviews with Jews or Muslims who view armed messianic Christianity with disdain. Nor are there any quotes from secular Marines who do not identify themselves as members of a Christian Army.

The opening article in the Harris series is an example of what Christian writer Jim Wallis calls “nationalist religion, that confuses the identity of the nation with the church of God, and God’s purposes with the mission of the American empire.”

THE DAY HARRIS CLAIMED THE WAR WAS OVER

The final article of Harris’ first tour (April 27, 2003), reminiscent of the jingoism of William Randolph Hearst, reflects embedded journalism at its worst.

It is April 14th, 2003. Anarchy reigns in Baghdad. The historic museums and libraries have been sacked. Hospitals are crammed with maimed and wailing civilians. Almost oblivious to the human catastrophe that surrounds him, Harris publishes his final, definitive dispatch from Iraq. It’s entitled: “Marines Looking For Some Firefights Say War Is A Fizzle. ‘Warriors Want to Be Tested.’” It’s a sum-up of his tour, an open celebration of military victory. Harris calls the invasion “the war that wasn’t.”  “Only one of the contenders actually showed up,” he states. “The battalion took Numaniyah without firing a single shot.” He quotes a Lieutenant: “I think the war was won by the reputation our predecessors earned.”
 
Harris tells us that the war is over, the invasion is a moral and military triumph, that Iraqis love Americans, and he claims that there is “jubilation and gratitude of the Iraqi people.” He portrays Iraqis as happy beneficiaries of American goodwill, and he refers to “joyous Iraqis…awakened from a long, painful nightmare.” “They all came out to show their gratitude.” “They express their appreciation.” “’I had people running out and telling me they love me,’” he quotes a Marine. “’They were happy that the Americans had arrived.’”  “This is like Independence Day for them,” a Lance Cpl. states. “They were cheering for us…and they appreciated our help in liberating this country.”
 
Harris claims that civilian casualties were minimal. He is oblivious to the civilian deaths about which Massey speaks, to the magnitude of suffering caused by the invasion. Of all the self-congratulatory claims, none is more offensive than a quote from Lt. Col. Michael Belcher, a commander of the 3rd Battalion: “We accomplished our mission. We did it safely, and we did it with minimal destruction to the civilian population.”

The Harris method is stenographic. He selects information, organizes quotes, and limits the focus in a way that sends a particular message. He concludes his article with a kind of locker-room bravado about the need for Arabs to learn a lesson. He quotes a Master Gunnery Sergeant who states that the victory “should serve as a lesson for other nations considering defying the United States. If I was another nation and if I was talking trash before, I’d be paying attention to this war….We just walked through these guys like they were nothing. I would watch what I had been saying if I were some of these countries.”

Harris lacks any feeling for what James Madison called “the solemnity of war.” Not only does Harris dance on the graves of the dead, he celebrates a victory that never even took place. According to Carl von Clausewitz, one of the world’s best-known military strategists, there is no greater sin in military affairs than premature claims to victory.
 
The date of Harris’ article is revealing. He proclaims “mission accomplished” (the very words appear in his text) two weeks before Bush made a fool of himself on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

For this one article alone Harris forfeits his respect as a journalist. In his hubris of April 14th, 2003, Harris has no idea that 100,000 Iraqis will be dead two years later, that more than 2,000 American troops will lose their lives after Harris returns home content.

Judith Miller, who promoted fantasies of weapons of mass destruction for the New York Times, recently admitted, “I got it totally wrong.” She was not alone.

FANTASIES BY OMISSION

Harris creates fantasies by ommission.

As Harris and the Marines approached the cradle of civilization between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the U.S. Air Force bombed the city of five million people for five straight days. Many of the civilians who were killed by U.S. troops at checkpoints outside the city were fleeing the terror from the skies.
On both tours Harris was accompanied by a professional photographer, Andrew Cutraro from the St. Louis Post Dispatch. In all of his dispatches, Harris never publishes a single photo of the rubble and ruin—the craters in the streets, the blackened taxis, the demolished buildings. He never interviews any stunned or suffering Iraqis; not the relatives of civilians killed at checkpoints, nor the shopkeepers whose businesses are wrecked, nor civilians outraged and appalled by the sacking of their cultural heritage, the libraries and museums of Baghdad under U.S. control.

“The lie in war,” writes Chris Hedges, “is almost always the lie of omission.” If there is any doubt, however, about who is lying, who is telling the truth, reports from the British Guardian, the Independent, journalists from Arab television, Agence France Presse, Asia Times, Human Rights Watch, The Mirror (U.K.), Christian Science Monitor, even the Washington Post, can set the record straight. What was actually taking place on the day when Harris proclaimed the end to the war? And why do the Harris reports conflict with so many eyewitness accounts from Baghdad? It is Massey’s account, not the Harris story, that is consistent with reporting from independent journalists, writers not yet under the spell or direct control of the U.S. Marines.

On April 10, 2003, three days before Harris announced the end of war, journalist James Conachy described the fall of Baghdad:

“The vast majority of Iraqis…are not cheering or applauding. Thousands are either gravely wounded or dead, and tens of thousands who lost loved ones are benumbed with grief….Casualties among Iraqi civilians have been horrific. Large numbers of civilians were killed and wounded by the U.S. and British forces as they crushed resistance in Baghdad, Basra, and other Iraqi cities and towns. The U.S. military, in particular, has indiscriminately bombed civilian areas and targeted civilian vehicles.”

 On the same day, Asia Times described the carnage from U.S. cluster bombs. “All over Baghdad, the city’s five main hospitals simply cannot cope with an avalanche of civilian casualties. Doctors can’t get to the hospitals because of the bombing. Dr. Osama Saleh-al-Delaimi at the al-Kindi hospital confirms the absolute majority of patients are women and children, victims of…shrapnel and most of all, fragments of cluster bombs. ‘They are all civilians,’ he said. ‘The International Committee of the Red Cross is in a state of almost desperation…casualties arriving at hospitals at a rate of as many as 100 per day….’”

Anton Antonowicz reported in The Mirror (U.K.) from a hospital in Hillah: “Among the 168 patients I counted…all of them, men, women, children, bore the wounds of bomb shrapnel. It peppered their bodies. Blackened the skin. Smashed heads. Tore limbs. A doctor reported that ‘All the injuries you see were caused by cluster bombs.’”

While atrocity accounts are rare in the U.S., they are common in the Mideast, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Marc Galasco. “If you go to the Middle East, that’s all you hear about—the U.S. killing civilians. It’s on the news all the time.”

Independent journalists, like Robert Fisk, saw the resistance coming.  Massey saw it coming. Harris did not.

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the mendacity of Ron Harris is to view the photographs of the carnage posted on Robert-Fisk.Com, appearing in the same week that Harris minimized civilian loss of life. The photos are still on line.

The great failure of embedded journalism is blindness to the humanity, to the right of self-determination, of peoples of color whose countries the U.S. occupies and destroys.

Paul Rockwell is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. ([email protected]). Ron Harris dispatches can be found on the St.Louis Post Dispatch website. The Sgt.Massey reply can be found at www.counterpunch.org.

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