Nations should only go to war when necessary. If only that were as obvious to everyone as it sounds. Yet history, including American history, has few examples of “necessary” wars. It always seems so easy and exciting at first; so much to gain and so little to lose. Nothing has changed that dynamic; indeed, Hollywood pushes in the opposite direction as it’s doing even now with “American Sniper.” But if there’s one countermeasure you can almost always count on it’s this: real war correspondence. The kind that describes or visually depicts the awful brutality, the pain, the waste of war. All war.
Which is why, especially when the U.S. media are cutting budgets for overseas reporting of any kind, Bill O’Reilly’s “faux pas” really matters. The only real “pay” in war correspondence is the reporter’s gratification. That increases correspondingly with the importance and danger of the job. It kept poor depressed reluctant Ernie Pyle going right until a Japanese machine gun blew his head open. He never wanted to go to Japan; he wanted to go home.
I know whereof I speak. I’ve been embedded three times in Iraq, once in Afghanistan. No combat injuries, but I suffered a horrible war-related injury in Fallujah leading to seven surgeries, plus acquired two partially paralyzed toes in Afghanistan. But I chose the most dangerous assignments I could get. My first firefight was with Seal Team Three of “American Sniper” fame during the Battle of Ramadi in 2006, viewable on YouTube. My two journalist predecessors with Task Force Currahee in Ramadi were shot by snipers, though both survived, and my Marine public affairs contact and the executive officer of the task force were both blown up.
Which is why it was worth it to me to tell their stories. I still get thankful emails from those who fought there and their families, including one last week from some ex-SEALs; I’ve given solace to parents of the fallen; and I’ve conveyed the sadness and waste of war. See if you can get through my article on SEAL Michael Monsoor, who won the Medal of Honor by throwing himself on a grenade when he was the only person in position to save himself, without weeping. I can’t. That’s what war is about. It’s what war reporting is about. Or supposed to be.
That was the problem with Brian Williams’s claim to have been fired at, though he truly did enter a war zone. And all the more with Bill O’Reilly, who never got closer than 1,200 miles away. Over and over, as the instigating Mother Jones article showed often in videos, O’Reilly made such claims as “I’ve reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands,” and “I’ve covered wars, okay? I’ve been there. The Falklands, Northern Ireland, the Middle East. I’ve almost been killed three times, okay.” (Emphasis added.)
On his own Fox News program in 2013, as this video clip shows, O’Reilly declares, “I was in a situation one time in a war zone in Argentina in the Falklands where my photographer got run down and hit his head and was bleeding from the ear on the concrete and the army was chasing us and I had to make a decision and I dragged him off…” (Emphasis added.)
Regarding his near-death experiences, it sounds like a little kid demanding everyone look at him as he rides his bicycle with no hands. I was sniped at, machine-gunned, mortared, and came within inches of stepping on a pressure-plate IED invisible under filthy water. But I don’t talk about it except in reference to those I reported on, and this is my first mention ever of the IED. Real combat reporters don’t make such boasts.
The closest O’Reilly ever got to the Falklands was Buenos Aires, about 1,200 miles away. Now, ignoring all of the above, he boldly claims, “I was not on the Falkland Islands and I never said I was.” Okey-doke. Then rather than trying to put himself into the war, O’Reilly made an incredible effort to bring the war to him—to convert Buenos Aires into an “active war zone” and “combat situation.”
Sorry, but a violent protest that concerns a war doesn’t qualify for either of the above assertions. The Kent State riot had considerable shooting and deaths. But a war zone?
Yet even the Buenos Aires violence he describes can neither be verified by people today nor by reports at the time. In his 2003 book The No Spin Zone he declares, “A major riot ensued and many were killed. I was right in the middle of it and nearly died of a heart attack when a soldier, standing about ten feet away, pointed his automatic weapon directly at my head.” Apparently that was one of his three near-deaths. In another video clip at Mother Jones, O’Reilly declared, “I was out there pretty much by myself because the other CBS news correspondents were hiding in the hotel.” He said soldiers “were just gunning these people down, shooting them down in the streets” with “real bullets.”
But lots of reporters were there, and as one former fellow CBS staffer of O’Reilly put it, “Not only didn’t I hear any shots, I didn’t see any ambulances … . All of the things you’d expect to see if anybody had been shot.” O’Reilly countered that by posting what he called “the video.” But it depicted no shootings, nor was there any mention in the voiceover. Not even references to “fake bullets.” That’s the best he could do. Now the Web is now flooded with footage from that night from correspondents whom O’Reilly claims “were hiding.” None shows shooting or deaths or had voiceovers indicating as much.
Finally, of course, the cameraman rescue was fabricated. That individual won’t talk, but other CBS staffers told CNN they remembered no injury, and no injury claim was filed.
So 1) O’Reilly repeatedly claimed he was in the Falklands; 2) He now claims he never said that; 3) He was not in a combat situation or zone or anything resembling it; and 4) Nobody remembers his rescuing anybody. But besides all that…
It’s now been exposed that O’Reilly falsely claimed to have been at the Florida house of a CIA informant related to the Kennedy assassination when the informant committed suicide, and that he was not attacked during the 1992 L.A. riots as asserted. Bad, but not war-related. Not so for the more recent revelation that, even by his own words, the four Salvadoran nuns he said he witnessed being shot point blank in the head were killed the year before he arrived, and his false claim to have seen “Irish terrorists kill” people in Northern Ireland. (He did see photos.)
Bill O’Reilly surely believes this is all about him. It’s not. It’s bad enough that more and more of our war “reporting” is coming from writers at desks in Washington and New York but all the worse to have what remains diluted by falsehoods by bloviating braggarts. And no, it’s not a “bye” that he’s an opinion commentator. People expect facts to underlie opinion. You’re reading an opinion piece.
Such misrepresentations do “severe damage” to journalistic credibility, Amy McCullough, president of Military Reporters and Editors, told the left-wing site Media Matters. Sig Christenson, a founding member of Military Reporters and Editors who has covered Iraq and Afghanistan warfare for the San Antonio Express-News, told the same site, “I’m concerned about the damage this is doing to journalists everywhere.” Said Christenson, “When people see these stories and then they are called into question it makes the rest of us look bad … . If I am introduced as someone who was in combat will people even believe it?” (Hint: Upload your video to YouTube and have a famous general praise it, as David Petraeus did mine.)
We desperately need more people willing to risk head loppings, bullets, and IEDs, plus the diseases and accidents that have always plagued war zones. (The highly-respected Atlantic editor Michael Kelly died when his Humvee flipped into a canal; he’s just as dead as if he took a bullet.) We desperately need their perspectives to counter every “American Sniper” book and movie, every new shoot-em-up video game. If we end up deciding to go back to a full-fledged ground war in the Middle East, probably the only way to defeat ISIS, let it be in the full knowledge of what that will entail.
To allow war correspondence to be devalued like Venezuelan currency is a disservice to all war reporters, and a disaster for all of us.
Michael Fumento is a veteran of the 27th Engineer Battalion (Combat)(Airborne) and embedded three times in Iraq and once in Afghanistan. He is a journalist, author, and attorney.