Dispatches From Iraq: Messengers Fight a War of Words and Images

Michael Yon is an independent writer, photographer and former Green Beret who was embedded in Iraq for nine months in 2005. He has returned to Iraq for 2007 to continue reporting on the war. Here is a portion of his latest dispatch for FOXNews.com.

One year after the Iraq ground war had begun, I was in Massachusetts studying cults and working on an unrelated book project, when Master Sgt. Richard L. Ferguson died in a Humvee rollover on March 30, 2004, while conducting combat operations in Samarra, Iraq.

“Fergy” was a fixture in the 10th Special Forces Group, and I had lunch with him in Colorado shortly before he went to war this time. Now he was gone.

I still remember how freezing cold it was in Massachusetts the next day when I took a break from writing to watch the midday news. Although David Petraeus and his 101st Airborne had performed brilliantly in Mosul and Nineveh Province, other areas of Iraq suffered less facile stewardship. Fallujah, for instance, which began as Coalition-friendly, had been pushed to a snapping point, largely by us. On the television, below a breaking news banner, flashed a mob of Iraqi’s dancing and chanting as they mutilated four American contractors.

Emails flooded my inbox. One of the murdered contractors was Scott Helvenston, an ex-Navy SEAL and super-athlete. We’d gone to high school together in Florida. When Fergy died in Samarra only friends and family seemed to notice, but the drama of the incident in Fallujah, culminating when the crowd hung the charred torso of one of the contractors from a nearby bridge, was captured frame by frame by the insurgent’s camera crews.

Insurgent media teams do not labor under a pretense of objectivity any more than cheerleaders ignore home team touchdowns. Thanks to the media partnership at work on their side, the dramatic video insured that none of the early and inflammatory reports included Fallujah back-story, or anything about the culture of a community that had gone from Coalition-ally to insurgent-incubator.

The incident would likely have been reported as “Four U.S. Contractors Killed in Fallujah,” and that would have been the end of it, but for the video. Instead of ending the photo-op, Washington's promise to unleash fire and brimstone stoked it to hell, and the media came to Fallujah for the full Monty.

Cult leaders are ruthless about hijacking high-profile moments, like when Moqtada al Sadr carpe diemed a call for a general uprising, and spread the violence around Iraq. Zarqawi also cashed in on the media windfall, using his own call to violence as the fulcrum to catapult himself to the head of Al Qaeda in Iraq, a new position in a place where Al Qaeda apparently had no franchise before. These two cult leaders, each the sworn enemy of the other, both managed to brazenly manipulate the same media coverage to achieve their strategic gains at the further expense of Coalition forces.

Looping footage of the carnage filled the screens and I was saddened by the loss of two old friends in two long days. I flew to Colorado for Fergy’s memorial and funeral, a gathering of family, friends and comrades, where they fired the guns, played taps and lowered Fergy into the soggy earth. The loss of this excellent human being ripped through the 10th Special Forces. At the reception, soldiers made a point of saying the media was not delivering a fair story on Iraq and that as a writer I should go there.

“No thanks,” was my stock answer. I’d not written a word about the war and had no intentions of starting.

From Colorado I flew to Florida for Scott’s memorial, where media from as far away as Japan had besieged his mom’s home and camped out front, using the long lenses to try to get photos of the family through the blinds. Media types stalked Scott’s friends, including a friend we shared, Eddy Twyford. Eddy took me to the memorial and funeral, blocking the relentless swarm of media buzzing their politically loaded questions. Some had taken to calling Scott a mercenary; extreme baiting even for tabloid programs.

National discourse grew even more aggressively polarized. To someone with my political tin ear, it all required too much translation. There seemed to be little emphasis on honest talk. But even with the pitch so high and intense, I heard the same thing at Scott’s funeral from the military people in attendance there:“we’re not getting the full picture of what’s happening in Iraq from the media, you should go, you’re a writer.”

Click here to read Michael Yon's full report from Iraq.