"This was a fucking mess, man." Kevin Sites peers at the monitor in the bright California sunlight, trying to make out the images on the screen. But Sites doesn't really have to look. This is his film, his moment; the images on the screen are ones that have come to define his life.
Sites is the journalist who captured the moment when a young U.S. Army Marine shot an equally young insurgent inside a mosque in Fallujah in November of last year. Sites' video, broadcast around the world, caused a storm. For some it showed an American soldier executing an insurgent, proof of the brutality of war, of the U.S. Army and of its soldiers. For others, it highlighted the perils faced by U.S. troops, from booby-trapped insurgents taking cover in mosques to the threat of an embedded liberal media.
For Sites, it posed other questions: of how to reconcile the need for truth and honesty with the sense of responsibility to the troops around him, of how to honor his duty to minimize harm through his reporting.
Assailed by all sides, Sites wrote a memorable explanation of his actions in releasing the video on his blog, "Dispatches From a Life in Conflict." Titled "To Devil Dogs of the 3.1," the text, in turn, was reprinted by media around the world, including this newspaper. Sites, it seemed, had inadvertently become the conduit for debate about the war. Earlier this month, a military tribunal ruled that the corporal involved in the incident should not face charges.
On Sites' laptop, the 12-minute video he shot in the dust of Fallujah plays out its story. Working as an embedded "sojo" -- a solo journalist -- employed by NBC to cover the offensive in Fallujah, Sites arrives outside a mosque with a squad of six Marines. Shooting is heard from inside the mosque, even though the site had been cleared the day before. Another squad enters the building from the rear. Three shots ring out, and a Marine emerges to say that they have found five insurgents and have shot them. "Were they armed?" asks the lieutenant with Sites' squad. The Marine shrugs and wanders off.
Sites enters the mosque. His camera pans around a small room, settling on two bodies lying together, one wearing a red kaffiyeh on his head. Blood bubbles from the man's nose. Off-screen a voice says, "He's fucking faking he's dead. He's faking he's fucking dead." Sites' camera slowly pans across the room until it stops at the image of a Marine, his body made bulky by equipment, standing before two figures lying on the floor. The camera's movement is matched by the barrel of the Marine's M-16 being raised.
As the camera stops moving, so does the gun. A shot rings out. One of the figures is thrown back. The Marine fires a second shot and abruptly turns and walks away. The camera pauses for a moment on the figure lying on the ground. In an almost balletic movement, the figure's leg drops gracefully to the floor. The camera, echoing the stillness of the scene, slowly moves back to the dying man with the bleeding nose. The video ends a few moments later.
Six months later, Sites is still reeling from the effects of the video he shot that day. Tanned and muscled, he exudes the genial, unreserved charm that can seem almost de rigueur in Southern California. Dressed in black T-shirt and jeans, black hair swept back, the 42-year-old talks quickly and confidently about his experiences. He is clear now, he says, about his actions and what happened in Fallujah. But underlying his resolve, there is a sense of anxiety. Did he favor one side over the other? Did he become a pawn for the antiwar movement? Was he swayed by his allegiance to the troops he was embedded with? In trying to present every side of the story, did he lose sight of the story?
Sites, who had been to Iraq many times and had been held captive by Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen outside Tikrit, was embedded with the U.S. Marines for three weeks prior to the onset of the offensive against Fallujah.
"I would sleep in the dirt," he says. "I would do whatever [the Marines] did, and they liked that. We ended up developing this incredible relationship. To the point where people started to criticize me on my blog, [saying] that I was becoming too sympathetic. I was taking pictures of them holding up pictures of their kids. My whole idea was to humanize them."
When his employer, NBC News, tried to replace him with a more traditionally telegenic frontman, the Marines came to Sites' rescue, saying that it was Sites or nobody. So Sites, with his video camera, went to Fallujah and the mosque and one of the biggest stories of the war.
"I knew what I had right away," Sites says. "I called the top bosses at the network, the three news officials that are responsible for foreign news. Got them out of bed. I said, 'I've got something that is potentially bigger than Abu Ghraib. I need you to know that I have it.' I watched the videotape on playback as I talked to them, and I remember my words. I go, 'Fuck, I have it.'"
But even though he knew what he had, and he had made sure that his superiors in the United States knew of its existence, he didn't immediately know what to do with it. His journalistic instincts were tempered by his comradeship with those around him.
"I wasn't thinking clearly as a journalist," he says. "I was still feeling part of a unit, part of some people who have just been embroiled in some serious conflict. I was heartsick, because I just knew that this wasn't good for anybody, not for the guy who got shot, not for that Marine, not for me. I've seen plenty of people get killed. I've never seen anybody get killed like that. I'd never seen what looked like an execution point-blank. I hoped at that moment that it had been anybody else other than me shooting that videotape."
NBC waited 48 hours before broadcasting Sites' report from the mosque. Instead of broadcasting a story about a Marine shooting an apparently unarmed insurgent inside a mosque, NBC and Sites constructed a story about the dangers Marines faced in fighting an enemy that used mosques as cover and was not afraid to booby-trap bodies.
"We backed into it," says Sites, with considerable disbelief. "We didn't get to the shooting until a third into the story." He mimics a pompous TV announcer's voice: "'There was a terrifying new technique being used by insurgents: booby-trapping bodies blah blah blah.' We highlighted all the mitigating circumstances to set this up. We made it seem that there was no question that this guy was probably justified."
But, as Sites knew at the time, some of the mitigating circumstances did not apply. The Marine who shot the insurgent had himself been shot in the face the day before, a fact reported in Sites' original story. What he did not say was that the shooting was probably an accident by U.S. forces. Similarly, although Marines were aware of the dangers of booby traps in general, the only specific instance of a booby-trapped body in Fallujah came at the same time as the mosque shooting.
"If he felt so strongly that this guy was a threat," says Sites, "he knew there were two other guys by me still alive; he never checked them after he shot him; he just spun on his heels. I don't know what was on his mind: The fog of war does strange things to people."
Sites also points out that as the Marine left, a fifth Iraqi inside the mosque, who had been hiding under a blanket, popped his head up. The Marine ignored him too.
The reaction to the video was immediate. Sites began to get 500 "hate mails" a day, including a dozen or so death threats -- every day. The networks outdid themselves: Rupert Murdoch's Fox News, with cheerleaders such as Oliver North and Bill O'Reilly, took it upon itself to attack Sites, while his employer, NBC, tried to have its scoop while denying any responsibility, choosing to describe Sites as a "freelance cameraman."
So Sites wrote his open letter to the Marines, explaining what he had filmed and why he had decided to broadcast it.
"If the truth is known, then people will be able to make the responsible decisions that they need to make in a democracy," he says. "And if you're burying it you're not trusting them with that responsibility; you're saying that democracy doesn't work. And to me that was a betrayal of everything I'd spent my whole adult life doing, as well as a betrayal of those very principles of democracy that those soldiers and those Marines believe that they're fighting for."
With the appearance of his letter to the Devil Dogs, the hate mail eased off. Sites returned to the United States and decided to take a holiday. He went scuba diving in Southeast Asia, eventually ending up in Cambodia. He even sent his video camera home, vowing to take a rest from journalism. Then the tsunami hit and Sites was back at work, blogging and filming.
The experience, he says, helped him gain a fresh perspective on the events that had buffeted him in Iraq. He was persuaded again of the usefulness of the media in informing and involving the public. He was also inspired again to use his talents to make a difference.
Does he think that he will always be identified with the video? "In a way that's going to be my burden to bear," he says. "I've seen a lot of death, especially in the last five years. And I have to live with those consequences. They come out, I have nightmares, and I've experienced a lot of personal attrition in my life, failed relationships. But you want your life to have purpose, and you want it to have meaning."
The decision to broadcast the video, he says, "was the hardest decision I'd made in my life. I know passionately now that it was the right thing to do, that I couldn't have lived with myself if I had buried that tape."