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Embedded journalism at its worst: The Ron Harris smear campaign against Marine Sgt. Jimmy Massey
By Paul Rockwell
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jan 15, 2006, 01:09

Who is 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.

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 5, 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 (author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning), �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 14, 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.�

He quotes Iraqis: �Thank you for our freedom.� �Welcome, welcome, welcome.� �We are happy, very happy.�

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 14, 2003, Harris has no idea that 100,000 Iraqis will be dead two years later (according to The Lancet (U.K.)), 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 also creates fantasies by omission.

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. Acclaimed international journalists, like Robert Fisk, captured the full magnitude of destruction in Baghdad. Harris did not. Either he was blind, or he refused to report the visible suffering around him.

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.�

That�s only one report, of course. 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.�

Robert Fisk, reporting from Baghdad on the same day Harris published his mission-accomplished dispatch, wrote: �America's war of 'liberation' may be over. But Iraq's war of liberation from the Americans is just about to begin. In other words, the real and frightening story starts now.� Fisk saw the resistance coming. Massey saw it coming. Harris did not.

Fisk writes, �Even the US Marines in Baghdad are talking of the insults being flung at them. �Go away! Get out of my face!� an American soldier screamed at an Iraqi . . . I watched the man's face suffuse with rage. �God is Great! God is Great!� the Iraqi retorted. �Fuck you!��

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.

David Zucchino, embedded journalist for the Los Angeles Times, honestly acknowledged the limits of the embedded system. �Often I was too close, or confined, to comprehend the war�s broad sweep. I could not interview survivors of Iraq civilians killed by U.S. soldiers . . . I had no idea what ordinary Iraqis were experiencing.�

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.

When we review the Harris series, it is easy to see that he follows a script. �If that�s what the Marine Corps reported, then that�s what we reported.� He relies on the commanders with whom he is embedded, officers who have a vested interest in avoiding accountability for consequences of their own decisions. When officers make erroneous claims, Harris simply repeats them as fact. When Lt. Conway says Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction, Harris goes along. When the non-existence of weapons becomes an embarrassment to both Conway and Harris, Harris quickly drops the subject altogether. No follow-up. No questions asked. When the fraudulent basis of the invasion inevitably undermines troop morale (After all, why should American troops give their lives or take lives for a lie?), Harris is silent about the problem. There is more insight and information on low morale published in Stars and Stripes, the leading periodical in military affairs, than in Harris.

When officers take a position that the mere potential of the presence of insurgents makes the killing of civilians legal (the main excuse for checkpoint killings in the Harris story) -- a position that violates the Geneva Conventions -- Harris is satisfied. The military can do no wrong.

Fantasy Causes Exodus of the Press

The Harris victory story was hardly unique. It was part of a national, journalistic fiasco. After publishing Harris� story on the front page, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called him home. The victory fantasy caused a huge exodus of U.S. reporters from Iraq, an exodus that took place even prior to Bush�s histrionic display of omniscience on the USS Abraham Lincoln May 1, 2003. Editor and Publisher magazine reported April 28th on the aftermath of �victory.� �Newspapers are pulling their reporters and photographers out of the once-coveted military embedding slots in droves.� �The military aspects are over,� wrote the Boston Globe. Over 600 journalists came home. �There is better stuff elsewhere,� said Colin McMahon, foreign editor of the Chicago Tribune.

On April 4, 2004, the St. Louis Dispatch editors sent Harris back to Iraq on a second tour. (One wonders why that was necessary, if the war was over a year before.) Clearly, as long as reporters are faithful to the ideology of empire, the mystique of American virtue, corporate owners of the press are willing to forgive even huge mistakes of fact.

Ron Harris Silent About Prima Facie War Crimes

For war correspondents in service of the nation-state, there is no subject more taboo than the war crimes of commanders. �All nationalists,� wrote George Orwell, �have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts . . . The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.�

Harris claims that he never saw or heard about some of the horrific events in which Massey said he was involved. Harris never saw a lot of things in Iraq. Much of the war�s reality is completely absent from his purified coverage of the invasion. On two major issues -- the use of depleted uranium and the use of cluster bombs in Iraq -- the contrast between Massey and Harris is dramatic.

Like many other soldiers and Marines, Marine Sergeant Jimmy Massey is deeply concerned about the premeditated use of depleted uranium (DU) in Iraq. In the debate on Democracy Now, Massey challenged Ron Harris: �Why didn�t you report that depleted uranium rounds were being used?� Massey severely criticized Harris for major omissions about war crimes in Iraq.

The Western world has a long, sorry record of testing heinous and mysterious weapons on countries of color. The British tested their dum-dum bullets in India. The U.S. tested Agent Orange in Vietnam, a major war crime for which no one was ever tried. Many American journalists, who observed the devastation from Agent Orange, remained silent. Now the United States, despite protests from scientists and worldwide condemnation, is using depleted uranium in Iraq. Depleted uranium has been implicated in Gulf War Syndrome.

Massey suspects that his own lung problems were caused by exposure to depleted uranium. �I have 80 percent of my lung capacity; I ache all the time.� �DU is everywhere on the battlefield,� Massey said. �If you hit a tank, there�s dust. Iraqis have a wasteland problem.� Iraqi doctors, who have seen birth defects from radiation, have registered complaints.

The controversy over the Marines� use of DU is no secret to the military or to the embedded journalists.

What, then, in contrast to Massey, does Ron Harris say about the use of depleted uranium by commanders with whom he works? Nothing, except for a passing reference to a mere rumor. He doesn't question commanders about the use of DU or touch on the inner concerns of the Marines with whom he lives. And, consistent with his almost complete isolation from Iraqi civilians, he shows no concern about the effects of radiation materials on the already suffering Iraqi people.

The use of depleted uranium by commanders in charge is prima facie a war crime. Article 23 of the Geneva Convention IV explains that �It is forbidden to employ poison or poisoned weapons or . . . projectiles or material calculated to cause unnecessary suffering.� According to the Geneva Protocol of 1925, �Asphyxiating, poisonous or other gasses, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices,� are prohibited.

When DU munitions explode, the air is bathed in a fine radioactive dust. It carries on the wind, is easily inhaled, enters the soil and pollutes the water. The radiation produced by depleted uranium in battle is a poison, a carcinogenic material that causes birth defects, lung disease, kidney disease, leukemia, breast cancer, lymphoma, and neurological disabilities.

When I interviewed Sgt. Massey a year ago, he also expressed concern about the widespread use of cluster bombs in Iraq. The cluster bomb is one of the most hated, unpredictable weapons of modern war. A cluster bomb is a 14-foot anti-personnel weapon that weighs about 1,000 pounds. When it explodes it sprays hundreds of smaller bomblets over an area the size of two or three football fields. The bomblets are bright yellow and look like beer cans. Because the bomblets look like playthings, thousands of children have been killed by dormant bomblets in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq.

U.N. Commissions have called for a ban on their use.

Massey knows a lot about cluster bombs. �One of the Marines in my battalion lost a leg from a multi-purpose cluster,� he told me. �He stepped on it.� He acknowledged that the military, including the Marines, are using them in violation of the principles of humanitarian law. They are dropped from the air and artillery as well.

When asked whether they were used in public places, inside towns or cities, he replied: �Yes, they are used everywhere. Now if you talked to a Marine artillery officer, he would give you the runaround, the politically correct answer. But for an average grunt, they�re everywhere. If you were going into a city, you knew there were going to be clusters. Once the round leaves the tube, the cluster bomb has a mind of its own. I�m going to tell you: The armed forces are in a tight spot over there. It�s starting to leak out about the civilian casualties that are taking place. The Iraqis know. Fallujah is just littered with civilian bodies.�

Massey�s comments about the civilian toll from clusters are consistent with a host of international reports, from Human Rights Watch to independent journalists. In a few days of fighting around the city of Hillah, south of Baghdad, for example, Human Rights Watch concluded that cluster bombs killed or injured more than five hundred civilians.

In contrast, what does Ron Harris say about cluster bombs, widely used by the Marine Corps with which he was embedded?

Except for a brief mention of seven American Marines who were injured by remnants of a U.S. cluster bomb, he says nothing. He makes no investigation. He raises no questions about the toll on Iraqis.

Harris has a serious case of �crimestop� -- Orwell�s term for �stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought . . . and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.�

The use of cluster bombs in populated areas is a war crime. General Michael E. Ryan, during the war in Bosnia in 1995, out of respect for the laws of war, prohibited the use of cluster bombs in the European theatre. The military admitted in official reports that the fragmentation pattern was too large to avoid civilian casualties, and that the unexploded ordinance became mines. Under the Geneva Conventions, it is a war crime to launch �indiscriminate attacks affecting the civilian population in the knowledge that such an attack will cause an excessive loss of life or injury to civilians.�

While cluster bombs were banned in the European theatre, the U.S. 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, in which Harris is embedded, resumed their use with full knowledge of their indiscriminate and treacherous results. Ron Harris is still silent.

Massey�s Message: Only the Truth Can Heal

It takes great fortitude for any soldier or Marine to break away from the atrocity-producing situation in which he or she is trapped. How much easier it is to surrender to the will of superiors, to merge into the anonymity of the group. It takes uncommon courage to resist the military powers of intimidation, the peer pressure, and the atmosphere of racism and hate that drives imperial war.

Those of us who have not experienced it can only imagine Massey�s inner turmoil when his conscience overcame the social forces of military life. In The Warriors, a pioneering work on guilt and war, World War II veteran Glen Gray describes the anguish of conscience in battle:

It is a crucial moment in a soldier�s life when he is ordered to perform a deed that he finds completely at variance with his own notions of right and good. Probably for the first time, he discovers that an act someone else thinks to be necessary is for him criminal. His whole being rouses itself in protest, and he may well be forced to choose in this moment of awareness of his freedom an act involving his own life or death . . . The past cannot be undone, and the present is inescapable. His only choice is to alter himself, since all external features are unchangeable.

What this means in the midst of battle can only inadequately be imagined by those who have not experienced it themselves. It means to set oneself against others and with one stroke lose their conforming presence. It means to cut oneself free of doing what one�s superiors approve, free of being an integral part of the military organism with the expansion of the ego that such belonging brings. Suddenly the soldier feels himself abandoned and cast off from all security. Conscience has isolated him, and its voice is a warning. If you do this, you will not be at peace with me in the future . . . You must act as a man and not as an instrument of another�s will.

I shall always remember the face of a German soldier when he described such a drastic awakening as this. At the time we picked him up for investigation in the Vosges in 1944, he was fighting with the French Marquis against his own people. To my question concerning his motives for deserting to the French Resistance, he responded by describing his earlier involvement in German reprisal raids against the French . . . As he told how women and children were shot as they fled screaming from the flames of their burning homes, the soldier�s face was contorted in painful fashion and he was nearly unable to breathe. It was quite clear that this extreme experience had shocked him into full awareness of his own guilt, a guilt he feared he would never atone. At the moment of that awakening he did not have the courage or resolution to hinder the massacre, but his desertion to the Resistance soon after was evidence of a radically new course. Terrible as was his self-reproach at what now could not be undone, he had won himself through this experience and would never again be available as a functionary.� (p. 184-185)

Jimmy Massey is no longer a functionary.

All military systems seek to silence the witnesses to war. Massey never expected to be welcomed by the American press. After all, it was the press, or at least one embedded sector, that promoted the invasion, only to remain silent about the kinds of horrific experiences in which Massey himself was involved. A soldier who speaks truth to power is not without honor, save in his own country.

One wonders why Jimmy ever came forward at all. He was a successful Marine. He invested 12 years of his life in service to his country. The pay was good. He could have come home a hero in the local press in North Carolina.

When I asked Massey a year ago why he gave up the rewards of silence, he gave a simple answer: Only the truth can heal. And he later wrote:

�When I am on my death bed and I have to face God with all the sins I committed throughout my life, when I come to the sin of killing innocent people in Iraq, I know I will only be able to meet my Maker if I tell the truth now.�

The story of Sgt. Jimmy Massey is authentic. Jimmy is one of the most soulful human beings to survive the injustice and mendacity of war.

Perhaps it is time for all of us -- including Harris and the other embedded journalists who got it wrong -- to ask forgiveness too.

Paul Rockwell
is a columnist for In Motion Magazine. He can be reached at


Paul Rockwell's interview (May 16, 2004) with Sgt.Massey appears in In Motion Magazine. Ron Harris dispatches appear on the St.Louis Post-Dispatch website. Jimmy Massey's reply to Harris appears in

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