Back in June 2011, James Foley gave an hour-long interview before an auditorium of students from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where he had graduated three years earlier with a Master’s degree in journalism. It was 15 days after he had been released from 45 rough days of captivity in Libya. He was a handsome young hero returning to his alma-mater.
In a recent item in The New Yorker, Mark Singer quotes Foley that his Libyan captivity was “a cautionary tale.” He makes it clear to the journalism students at Medill that the business of covering wars was pretty new to him when he was captured in Libya in early 2011.
“I started as a leftist war protester,” he tells interviewer Timothy McNulty, a Medill professor and former editor at the Chicago Tribune. Foley’s brother was a soldier in Iraq, which led him to sympathize with his brother. He began to feel pulled to get into the middle of conflict himself; he aspired to become an active voice in the affairs of the world. So at Medill he took academic coursework on covering international conflicts. Singer points out he participated in something called the National Security Journalism Initiative, in which ex-British commandos grabbed him in a mock kidnapping and shot blanks by his head they’d covered with a bag.
In the interview, he says one thing the US military learned in Vietnam was the need to control journalists. So they came up with the “embed” idea. With a shiny Masters degree in hand, he got a job embedded with a US National Guard unit in Iraq. At one point, he worked for US-AID.
“You start to bond with these guys,” he says. “You wonder about your objectivity sometimes — especially with US soldiers.” He fully appreciates the history and the thinking behind the military’s embed program, which relies on a reporter bonding with the soldiers he is covering. These same soldiers are protecting his life. He seems to understand the pressures this relationship puts on his ability as a journalist to be “objective.” By now, everyone in the journalism business knows there is no such thing as objectivity. I have a Masters Degree in Journalism from Temple University and I first learned the same lesson about objectivity in coursework there.
Foley next reveals the key to why many war journalists are so driven to do what they do.
“When you see something violent it doesn’t always repel you. It can draw you close,” he says. Shots of individual students in the audience reveal young faces in rapt attention. “Feeling that you survived has a strange sort of force.” There’s the famous adrenaline rush.
When he moved on to the Libyan struggle, he was embedded with a rebel unit. He tells how he was pulled into going forward by some of the older, more experienced war journalists like Anton Hammerl, a South Africans photographer associated with “the bang-bang club,” legendary shooters during the days of bloody street fighting between South African white government troops and black freedom-fighting militias. The group also included Clare Morgana Gillis and Manu Brado.
Suddenly they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time under fire from pro-Gaddafi troops. Hammerl is shot and bleeds to death. He and a woman journalist are wounded and beaten and driven off to captivity. There is no question this was a harrowing time for Foley, an athletic man in his late 30s at the time. During the interview he says he knew being captured was hard for his family; he thinks how really hard it would be if he were to be killed by his captors. He thinks about not doing it anymore, for his family’s sake.
When the fighting in Syria broke out, the lure pulled him into that increasingly confusing and brutal conflict. “Conflict zones can be covered safely,” he tells McNulty. “But you have to be very experienced. You have to be very, very careful.”
The history is clear: Backed up by high-level lies, post-9/11 fears and a raft full of delusion, our American military was ordered in 2003 to unleash shock and awe bombing and, a bit later, a ruthless and effective assassination program to dis-empower Sunni insurgents in Iraq’s western Anbar province. The question that haunts James Foley’s horrific end as a video thumb-in-the-eye to the Americans who did this is: Using his own categories, was he experienced and careful enough? Or was he a little too eager to be at the center of the action?
Granted this is a provocative line of questioning based, in my case, on a veteran antiwar point-of-view and two trips through Anbar Province during the Bush war. It all leads to the ultimately troubling question: Was James Foley actually a victim of the Bush Administration’s stupid decision to invade Iraq and turn the keys to the country over to the Shiites, fueling a psychopathic cycle of revenge?
American leaders and citizen-patriots with blinders don’t like this line of questioning. They prefer to conveniently forget a major debacle and to pursue with new vigor the cycle of vengeance. Instead of self-examination they choose to utilize easy emotional scapegoats, easily demonizable monsters that, in this case, they had a lot to do with creating in the first place. The New York Times reports that a third of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s deputies across Iraq and Syria are officers from Saddam Hussein’s army that we disbanded en-toto, and most of them were imprisoned by American forces.
When I was in Iraq briefly as a cameraman in January 2004, one night my colleague and I thought we were being kidnapped. It turned out we were wrong and it was a bizarre confusion of language and circumstance. We had basically scared ourselves. I made a big scene with an SUV driver and, in the end, ate crow in embarrassment. Being two men way over their heads in such a war zone had a lot to do with the confusion. By the grace of some deity — I’ll leave which to the theologians — we ended up with our heads still on our shoulders.
I mention this only to make the point had we actually been kidnapped by furious anti-American insurgents — something that would no doubt have been an excruciating and terrifying experience — and had we been killed in public videos, I am certain neither of us would have wanted any kind of after-the-fact revenge to be taken in our name. Self-defense actions or being saved despite our stupidity is another matter. This peace activist wants to live just as badly as the next person.
The issue is the emotions of after-the-fact vengeance versus the need for a sane approach to turmoil in the Middle East. Since I’m a military veteran antiwar activist who, with many colleagues, vehemently opposed the Iraq War even before the shock and awe invasion, I would not have wanted my life to in any way be a casus belli for continuing an insane vengeance cycle. Whether stupid or delusional on my part, any risk I took traveling in Anbar Province was in the cause of stopping war.
James Foley says he started out on the anti-war side vis-à-vis the Iraq War. I presume by the time he got to Syria he felt quite differently than someone like me, and I can’t know how he would have felt about his death becoming the casus belli it has become. In the Medill interview, he seems to understand as an embedded journalist he was part of a partisan, war-making unit — not an independent, “objective” individual. He seems to have fully understood the risks to his mortality from what he was doing. It’s not accurate to characterize him as “innocent.” US soldiers have beheaded people. Our allies in Syria just beheaded a half dozen men.
Was James Foley a combatant? No. But neither was he a neutral observer. The world is still stunned by the barbaric Sunni onslaught out of Syria that went through Iraq’s barren Anbar Province like a vengeful firestorm. Anyone entering such a chaotic madhouse of hatred and resentment for Americans had to understand how incredibly high the risks were. This was a case of people pushed so far their arsenal is suicidal martyrs as bomb delivery devices and psychopathic homicide as a weapon of terror. When people get to the point death is their friend, it’s hard to bring them to heel. The people of Iraq and Syria who want a sane life will need to put their house in order the best they can. The last thing they need is more US military provocation to stir the place up. The idea that ISIL is coming to hit us in the United States has been shown to be groundless, since ISIL is occupied controlling territory, something al-Qaeda was not. As always, the inciting issue is America in their neighborhood attacking them.
In this insane climate, James Foley was apparently sold by the group that held him in Syria to an ISIL element in Iraq. He was to be another variety of weapon in the mad vengeance cycle against America. How better to infuriate and instill a sense of dis-empowerment in the hearts and minds of decadent Americans far, far away in their comfortable homes than to show this strong, brave man’s execution on the huge plasma TV screens across America. It would be the perfect visual counter to the incessant imagery of exceptional power Americans thrived on in their inner world.
No one said it better than Susan Sontag following the horrors of the attack on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. “By all means let’s mourn together, but let’s not be stupid together.” She was pilloried for saying that. Then our leaders took us like sheep to the slaughter into an invasion and occupation of Iraq that has led directly to the holy fury we’re now witnessing in western Iraq. A debacle that keeps on giving.
Let’s haul Sontag down from the societal stocks she was pilloried on and resurrect the profound intelligence of her mind so we can avoid being “stupid together” again and making things even worse than they are. We can only hope the courageous James Foley who felt compassion for the victims of war would not want his death to be used for even more stupidity.