There are the iconic images from Iraq — Saddam’s statue tumbling, Abu Ghraib, burned bodies of American contractors hanging from Fallujah’s bridge, purple-stained Iraqi finger tips — that provide us a collective glimpse of the road traveled since the Americans arrived five years ago. Likewise, we retrieve from our memory words and phrases — weapons of mass destruction, mission accomplished, IEDs, Building 18, and posttraumatic stress disorder — that speak loudly of the price being paid at home and abroad.
As Nieman Reports continues its yearlong project exploring the challenges and opportunities of 21st Century Muckrakers, we draw attention to investigative reporting and photojournalism in the coverage of war. We hear, too, from journalists back home who use their investigative skills to unearth what is happening to soldiers and Marines who have returned from war physically and emotionally scarred. Visual documentation conveys the difficult lives of Iraqi refugees and of soldiers in war zones, some of whom never came home.
Journalists describe their pursuit of answers as they tell of times when necessary pieces of verification were only stubbornly relinquished by military and administration officials determined to carve their own prevailing narrative about the wars and consequences faced by those who fight them. From The New York Times reporter Tim Golden’s investigation of the deaths of Afghan civilians at the hands of U.S. military interrogators at Bagram Air Base to the New York Daily News’s meshing of its editorial page’s voice with investigative reporting about the cause of illnesses afflicting rescuers and workers at Ground Zero, this collection of stories speaks to the essential role journalists play in giving people ways to peer into places of public concern that those in power prefer remain hidden.
Joshua Kors in his cover story in The Nation made public a pattern of medical treatment by Army doctors who gave returning soldiers a diagnosis of a pre-existing “personality disorder” as a way of fraudulently discharging them. In turn, these soldiers not only lost their military benefits but were obligated to repay their signing bonuses. Mark Benjamin, an investigative reporter with Salon.com, and Anne Hull and Dana Priest, with The Washington Post, each turned their watchful eyes on the dire situations that some of the wounded were confronting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. For Benjamin, the focus was Wards 53 and 54, the lock-down and outpatient psychiatric units. For Hull and Priest, whose reporting was honored with a Pulitzer Prize, Building 18 — filled with mold and malfunction — quickly became a national symbol of the neglect and maltreatment of those who served their country honorably. And Warren P. Strobel, foreign affairs correspondent in McClatchy’s Washington, D.C. bureau, was part of the Knight Ridder team whose investigation of U.S. claims of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction challenged Bush administration claims of their presence in Iraq prior to the invasion. Today he and his colleagues continue to probe, examining the private security contractors’ work arrangements in Iraq and expenditures and safety issues involved in the construction of the American embassy in Baghdad. Their reporting experiences are joined by those of many others in this issue.