"Soldier with a Pen"
The Christian Science Monitor’s Other Freelancer: Steven Vincent
Steven Vincent, a freelance journalist who brought elegant writing and passionate moral clarity to his magazine articles, was kidnapped and murdered in Basra, Iraq, eight months ago. Like Jill Carroll, Vincent freelanced for several publications - including The Christian Science Monitor. Unlike Carroll and most journalists in Iraq, Vincent broke out of mainstream journalistic formulas and biases that have provided a distorted picture of this war. On the third anniversary of Iraq’s April 7th liberation, Vincent’s legacy is worth remembering as questions about the war’s progress inevitably provoke questions about the fairness of the media’s war reporting.
By DAVID PAULIN
Austin, Texas - Jill Carroll wasn't the first freelancer for The Christian Science Monitor to be kidnapped in Iraq. Forgotten amid celebrations over Carroll’s release and the subsequent flap among bloggers over her alleged Chomskyesque political views is the legacy of another occasional freelancer for The Christian Science Monitor: Steven Vincent.
Five months before Carroll's abduction, Vincent, a 49-year-old New York art critic-turned war reporter, was kidnapped with his translator, Nour Itais, off a street in the southern port city of Basra. Vincent suffered the same fate as Carroll’s translator, Allan Enwiyah, after he and Nour were driven away: He was shot in the back and killed. Nour was shot and left for dead; but she survived.
A hawk on the war, Vincent left behind an extraordinary body of work in spite of his untimely death. He was at his best when writing for conservative magazines such as National Review, Front Page, American Enterprise, and Commentary.
Sadly, many obituaries about him failed to give a full picture of the California native, who was the first American journalist murdered in Iraq. It’s no wonder; most of the journalists who wrote those obituaries probably didn’t read magazines with the political orientation of National Review.
A Class Act
Vincent was in a class by himself, however. As Iraq’s security deteriorated, most reporters preferred to stay in the safety of the U.S-fortified "Green Zone”; or they traveled about with bodyguards. In contrast, Vincent traveled throughout the country on his own: No bodyguards, no bullet proof vests; just the company of a translator and maybe a driver. It’s something that Carroll did as well by wearing a Muslim head covering to maintain a low profile. But nobody could quite match Vincent’s insights.
Reporting from the Red Zone, he provided a colorful mix of colorful travelogue, gum-shoe reporting, and razor-sharp analysis that presented Iraq in all its pathologies, danger, and promise. His remarkable book, “In The Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq,” is a must read. At the time of his death, he’d been working on another book.
Time will tell if Iraq indeed turns into the "quagmire" that President Bush’s critics have long maintained (and perhaps wished for) as they've repeatedly evoked the memory of Vietnam. Those critics, it’s fair to say, have more than a few kindred spirits among the mainstream press – reporters who too often have covered the war with formulistic reporting that reflects a simple dictum: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Some can’t be blamed. They’re unable to write any other way thanks to the formulas and constraints of newspaper journalism. In some cases, political biases have determined what stories get told and how they’re told.
One of Jill Carroll’s last Monitor pieces was a case in point: It was a “formula” story about how the highway between Baghdad and the international airport was the most dangerous in Iraq. Journalists and editors love stories like that; those which play up conflict…or call attention to the fact that something is the worst… the best…the most popular…the safest…or most dangerous.
And then there are all those “gotcha” stories; the ones that make policymakers or military commanders look bad by focusing on miscalculations or misconduct - whether they're pieces about detainee abuse or civilian casualties. Not that such stories lack merit; they need to be told. But when such news coverage eclipses the good deeds and justness of the U.S.-led war effort, the question of mainstream media bias becomes a worthy one.
Perhaps the biggest purveyor of disinformation is the Associated Press, the wire service from which most Americans get their news about Iraq, both via newspaper articles and television reports that rely heavily on the AP.
For much of the war, the AP and others in the mainstream media have tended to view Iraq through a filter of grisly suicide bombings and by tallying daily casualties -- all written up from news bureaus situated in the safety of the Green Zone.
The Elusive 'Big Picture'
This brings us to Steven Vincent. Few mainstream reporters have done what he did at his best: present the Big Picture. Vincent did this by viewing Iraq through the lives of ordinary Iraqis. He was unashamed about going beyond “objective” and “factual” reporting. He made judgments.
His approach resulted in a moral clarity that was refreshing in comparison to the journalistic nihilism that portrays all sides as morally equivalent. One egregious example of such “balanced” reporting was pointed out by The Wall Street Journal’s OpinionJournal.com: A CNN.com story regarding a spate of horrific atrocities in which terrorists sawed off the heads of live hostages. To the CNN.com writer, this posed a vexing – yes vexing -- question: Does beheading civilians qualify as legitimate executions? This is the same CNN, incidentally, that for years turned a blind eye to Saddam Hussein’s ghoulish crimes so that it could maintain its Baghdad bureau and have “access” to Iraq.
When pondering such morally confused journalism, imagine this: What if that CNN.com writer had covered the D-Day landings in Normandy – writing an “objective” story describing only “facts”; but without judgments or any sense of moral self-confidence; as if Germany and America were morally equally -- and both therefore deserving of “balanced” coverage in which Germany is not referred to as the "enemy" but by names that are morally neutral. In Iraq, mainstream reporting has at times had that same morally confused feeling.
No such confusion crept into Vincent's work, however. His readers know exactly where he stood when writing about issues in post-Saddam Iraq affecting Iraqis from all walks of life: shopkeepers, policemen; government officials; those who despised the U.S. presence or were ambivalent; those truly infected with the idea of an Iraqi democracy.
Conversely, AP’s reporters know less about the Red Zone than about their accommodations in the Green Zone where they’re largely confined: "the fifth floor of the Palestine Hotel," according to an article in The New York Times, quoting the AP’s managing editor, Mark Silverman. ("Editors Ponder How to Present a Broad Picture of Iraq," NYT, Aug. 15, 2005.) Silverman also admitted that positive news had indeed been buried in articles.
(The AP and other news organizations rely heavily on Iraqi news assistants and journalists who move about the Red Zone; not surprisingly, they're suffering most of the casualties among media workers.)
Heir to Vietnam Reporting Tradition
In one sense, Vincent was a heir to the tradition of some of the best reporting of the Vietnam War, a conflict in which a handful of idealistic and prescient journalists went beyond official sources and news conferences -- Saigon's so-called "Five O'clock Follies" -- and ventured into the field to see the war up close, through the eyes of American soldiers and Vietnamese.
Long before it was fashionable, they wrote of Vietnam's self-defeating and atrocity-producing polices: free-fire zones; the use of "body counts" to measure military success; the apparent lack of popular support for the U.S. cause; the failure to win "heart and minds" in the countryside. Some of the most interesting early reporting in this regard was in magazines like The New Yorker and Ramparts, the defunct New Left magazine.
On two points, however, those idealistic reporters were dead wrong. Despite Walter Cronkite’s influential but totally inaccurate claims -- following 1968’s Tet Offensive -- that the war could not be won, the scholarship in recent years has argued just the opposite. In fact, the war could have been won; and the popular support against the communist was indeed there. But thanks to this country's loss of political will, addled by a hostile press that failed to present all the truths of that conflict, America pulled out. The resulting loss of U.S. prestige fueled leftist insurgencies for years to come. (“The War We Could Have Won,” Stephen J. Morris, NYT Op-Ed.)
Those Vietnam reporters were left-leaning doves. Vincent was a hawk. Although he didn't vote for Bush, he supported the war, believing it was a legitimate part of the war on terror and "Islamofacism." That recognition came as an epiphany when he watched the Sept. 11 attacks from the rooftop of his apartment building in Manhattan's East Village.
Vincent struck me as a man of the left; but not the left that one sees today. In his articles, Vincent skewered "peace activists" visiting Iraq who cared less about the suffering of ordinary Iraqis than about criticizing the U.S.-led invasion -- or "liberation" -- as he preferred to call it.
In his book and in articles for the National Review, Vincent also criticized the mainstream press for failing to recognize signs of progress in Iraq and for utilizing morally confusing language - including terms like "insurgency," "guerrillas" or even "resistance fighters."
Vincent preferred "paramilitaries." He argued that it "evokes images of anonymous right-wing killers terrorizing a populace in the name of a repressive regime -- which is exactly what the fedayeeen and jihadist are doing" by terrorizing Iraqis with kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide bombings.
Writing in the National Review, Vincent expanded on this argument when he framed the fight in Iraq as being similar to the civil rights struggle in the Jim Crow South.
"When gunmen stalk the Iraqi countryside, murdering civilians in the name of 'defending the homeland,' can we not see a modern-day Ku Klux Klan. They, too, were masked; they, too, mounted an 'insurgency'; they, too, sought to reinstate a reactionary regime based on ethnic and religious supremacy," he wrote.
And while many "culturally sensitive" reporters ar reluctant to criticize Arab culture, Vincent zeroed in on what was fueling the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle, whose nihilistic nature has puzzled many journalists: It was a reflection, he wrote in his book, of the all-consuming quest within Arab culture for "honor" and "self-respect."
The fighters "see themselves as tribal warriors engaged in the venerable tradition of honor killings against the biggest tribe of all: America." He faulted the U.S.-led coalition for failing to quickly subdue the Sunni Triangle, which he said allowed tribal groups and the Baath Party to join forces.
And while many reporters focused endlessly on the issue of Iraq's supposedly nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Vincent dealt with a more interesting aspect of that issue: It was a non-issue to most Iraqis.
Vincent's death, on his third reporting trip, came as the mainstream media was just starting to come under increasing criticism for how it has been covering the war – criticism, to be sure, that persists today. It’s not just Bush supporters and hawks who are upset.
In a little-known meeting in July, 2005, some of the nation's newspaper editors, during a regular meeting with top AP news executives, raised questions about news coverage that had failed to take note of a number of positive developments -- such as the fact that 47 countries had reestablished embassies in Iraq and 3,100 schools had been renovated by coalition forces.
Nobody familiar with Vincent's dispatches would have been surprised. Indeed, an editorial in The Tampa Tribune, struggling to make sense of the war, referred to the raging insurgency but also cited a passage from an article Vincent had in The American Enterprise Magazine: "Baghdad is now choked with traffic. Cell phones have spread like wildfire. And satellite TV dishes sprout from even the most humble mud hovels in the countryside."
"This sounds nothing like the Vietnam quagmire that some Bush critics are beginning to describe," stated the editorial in June, 2005. However, it also called on the Bush administration to be more forthcoming about where things stood in Iraq.
Vincent, to be sure, had in the last months of his life grown increasingly uneasy about how the war was going.
“America rid us of one tyrant, only to give us hundreds more in the form of terrorists,” he quoted one man as saying in Umm Qasr, a port city near Kuwait, in an article in National Review.
In his book, he elaborated: "Were we wrong in Iraq? Yes, in one major sense, beyond even the shortage of troops, failure to anticipate the Baathist-led insurrection and Abu Ghraib: we did not, and still don't understand the regressive, parasitical, unreasonable presence of tribal Islam - the black hole in Iraqi and Arab cultures that consumes their best and most positive energies. Because of our blindness, we find ourselves fighting an enemy we do not see, comprehend, or even accurately identify."
He nonetheless argued that much still depended on America's willingness to "stay the course."
Vincent’s murder occurred just three days after he published an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times criticizing the increasing infiltration of the Basran police force by Islamic extremists. Amid Basra’s repressive religious atmosphere, he wrote, most police officers were putting their faith in the mosque – not the state. In his Op-Ed, he blamed British troops who had secured the city.
“Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society,” wrote Vincent, whose murder remains unsolved.
So much for nation building.
Vincent left behind his wife, Lisa Ramaci Vincent. One neighborhood newspaper in New York had a fitting farewell headline for him: “Soldier with a Pen.”
It was a fitting description: Rest in Peace Steven Vincent. ____________________________________________
Additional information and reading:
*See my story focusing mainly on Steven Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, "Honoring Her Husband's Pledge," published at the Big Carnival and in an expanded version at FrontPage Magazine. The Big Carnival post also contains a number of links of interest regarding Steven Vincent
*Steven Vincent’s book: “In the Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq,” is available from Spence Publishing for $10 - an online special more than one half off the regular retail price.
*The Steven Vincent Foundation: Established by Steven’s widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, the foundation provides financial aid to families of murdered Third World freelance journalists, photographers, translators, and other media workers. Funds also are provided to improve the conditions of women in the Islamic world, an issue that was close to Steven’s heart. As of April, 2006, the foundation had distributed several thousand dollars to people in Iraq, Iran, and Bangladesh. Checks should be made out to “The Steven Vincent Foundation” and mailed to: The Steven Vincent Foundation, 534 East 11th Street, Suite 17-18, New York, NY, 10009. Donations via Paypal (www.paypal.com) should be e-mailed to: email@example.com. Lisa Ramaci-Vincent talks about the foundation in an interview, here.UPDATE: Steven Vincent was one of two freelance journalists honored in 2006 with the Fifth Annual Kurt Schork Awards in International Journalism. Vincent was recognized posthumously for his work reveling the existence of police death squads in Iraq. Vincent’s widow, Lisa Ramaci, will receive the award and a $5,000 prize during ceremonies in London. The Kesher Talk blog has more here and here.