Author shares war stories at Catawba
“If you don’t tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people.” Virginia WoolfBy Shelley Smithssmith@salisburypost.com
World-renowned journalist Kevin Sites uses one word to characterize his life ó serendipity.
Sites visited Catawba College Saturday, speaking to students and the community not only about his experiences, but how he got there.
Sites’ first book, “In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars,” was chosen for the Common Summer Reading of 2009 for Catawba College and the 2009 Summer Reading Challenge.
Sites ventured around the world documenting 20 different current and past wars, and the people, places and emotions involved. He also produced a documentary, “A World of Conflict,” which coincided with the work for the book.
Sites experienced things he says Americans are not told by the media: the things left behind.
“I don’t know how many of you can become complacent with a man’s death,” he said, “but I can.”
Sites began his journey at 15, when he got his first photojournalism gig with his hometown paper, The Geneva Free Press, in Geneva, Ohio.
“The camera opened doors for me,” he said. “It gave me purpose.”
Sites said he began to write stories for the paper as well, but “wanted to touch danger.”
After working for ABC and NBC, CNN called Sites and hired him.
“They said they liked the rawness of my reporting,” said Sites, who was immediately sent to Iraq with a crew just before the U.S. invasion.
Sites began an independent blog, posting still photos, videos and text of his experiences, but had to shut it down after two weeks because CNN didn’t want there to be any conflict of interest.
Sites was not the only reporter CNN sent to Iraq and he had to compete with the other two for stories.
“While they were covering another Saddam Hussein statue that was being toppled over, I went to the only town that hadn’t been invaded ó Tikrit,” said Sites.
As Sites and his crew pulled up to a checkpoint they were greeted by Hussein’s militia pointing machine guns in their faces.
“We told them we were Al Jazeera,” said Sites, who said they noticed the CNN logo on their equipment, which was tied to the tops of their vehicles.
“The leader fired a single round between my legs,” said Sites, then he and his crew were forced onto the ground. They eventually got one vehicle back from the militia, but lost all of CNN’s equipment, about $20,000 in cash and Sites lost his job.
Sites then got a job with NBC, where he went on the front lines of war, patrolling with U.S. Marines in Iraq.
“On Saturday, November 13, 2004, I captured the most controversial footage of my career,” said Sites.
Sites followed U.S. Marines around Fallujah while the soldiers were clearing out insurgents. Five men were wounded from the previous day’s shootings and left in a mosque. The next day, Nov. 13, the soldiers went back to the mosque.
“They had already been in, shooting them a second time,” said Sites. Sites then showed the clip of what happened next.
The unarmed and injured Iraqi prisoner was breathing, and was shot by a Marine after another soldier claimed the Iraqi was “faking it,” or pretending to be dead.
“The only non-Marine witness to the shooting, other than myself, was shot 23 times in the back,” said Sites, who said the mosque was destroyed by a Marine air strike the next day. The witness, Taleb Salem Nidal, was left in the mosque overnight. Sites said he was going to help him out safely but had to help with a stretcher for a Marine.
“It will be my burden always,” said Sites. “But it is a burden that motivates rather than paralyzes.”
“This was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention,” said Sites. “The story had to be told.”
Sites censored the video to be shown on NBC, not showing the actual shots fired into the Iraqi, but showing the Marine lifting his gun in point-blank range.
“We failed the American public,” said Sites, who wishes the full video would have been shown.
Soon after the video aired, and after hundreds of death threats and hate mail, NBC distanced itself from Sites. He then restarted his blog.
“This was one of those rare chances for a do-over,” said Sites, who was soon picked up by Yahoo, where he started The Hot Zone.
“The Hot Zone was the best job I’ve ever had while it lasted,” said Sites, who fed Yahoo footage, photo stills and articles on what he was experiencing. His experiences were viewed worldwide, and were the inspiration behind his book.
“We define war by combat,” said Sites. “We should define it by the destruction of civil society. It endures for generations. The stories are about us as humanity. We make mistakes. Hopefully we learn from them.
“I tried to present the truth as I saw it.”
Sites’ book focuses on different wars, including Vietnam, which one person asked him about during his presentation.
“It’s important to go back and see where we were,” Sites said. “Seeing how they saw the war and comparing it to how we saw it.
“I think no wars are truly over. They’re always going to be with us.”
Sites also visited the Congo, where more than 5 million people have died since the fighting began.
“You don’t really hear about it in America,” said Sites. “Rape is used as a weapon of war, and has become particularly ugly. It’s a difficult conflict.
“Every war in history has been based on resources. Politics, religion ó (people) manipulate belief systems to make you do what you do. It’s either someone else’s wife, someone else’s cow, or someone else’s oil.
“We have to look at all our communities in the world in a sustainable light. People have to solve their own problems.”
Sites is currently working on his second book, “The Things They Cannot Say: What the World’s Warriors Can’t Tell You About What They’ve Seen, Done or Failed to Do in War,” which will focus on soldiers’ experiences once they return from war.
For more information, see www.kevinsitesreports.com.