Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Reporters Describe Covering 'Invisible Wars'

April 18, 2011

In the first veterans' memoir that journalist Monica Haller helped create, there is a photograph of a dark figure walking across a bridge. The photographer, an American soldier named Jessie, explains in the caption that he had considered shooting that dark figure. Instead, he shot him with his camera.

"Soldiers are the experts on their own experience," said Haller in a recent panel on 21st century war journalism. Haller and her two co-panelists, journalists Michael Otterman and Nick Turse, asserted the need to go beyond mainstream journalism's preoccupation with body counts and military strategy summaries. They stressed the extent to which mainstream media makes the personal experiences of soldiers and civilians invisible.

The Veterans Book Project is Haller's way to counter that invisibility. The project helps American veterans and their families create books about their personal experiences in combat. The project reflects a need to let people tell their own stories, Haller said, adding that this kind of "non-mediated journalism" may help policy makers and everyday Americans confront the real life consequences of war.

Michael Otterman also stressed need to push beyond mainstream media accounts. His second book, Erasing Iraq, tells the stories of Iraqis affected by the American occupation. It wasn't only people that had died, but an entire society, said Otterman, citing the end of an entire religious sect and the destruction of Baghdad's museum.

"The word carnage wasn't enough to describe what we uncovered," he said.

In another book, Otterman used a cache of unclassified military documents to trace the development of American torture techniques. After 9/11, the US literally adopted the torture techniques of its enemies, Otterman said, describing how experts who once trained American soldiers to resist foreign torture techniques became instrumental in charting the course of American torture techniques in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Journalist Nick Turse explored another area of invisibility within American policy: foreign military bases. After many thwarted attempts to get accurate information from Pentagon officials, Turse discovered a problem not only of secrecy but of accountability.

The reality is that the Pentagon does not actually know how many military bases the US has, Turse said. "The US cares about building military bases, not counting them."

This lack of accountability obscures real consequences on the ground, Hurse explained. The American military base in Bahrain played a large role in preventing President Obama from supporting Bahraini civilian protesters, he said.

Asserting the need for alternative narratives of war, Turse cautioned the audience, "You can't turn on the TV and find out what's happening."

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Juliana Friend '11