Michael's Dispatches

Even as the World Watched II: Tasting the Kool-Aid


Thai TV 3 was targeted and the building burned.

“At least 27 buildings and locations were on fire as of 9 p.m. local time, including the Thai TV 3 building, the Metropolitan Electricity Authority, Siam Theatre, several banks and part of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, officials said.”

Noppatjak Attanon (blue shirt) spent some time in America and played football in high school.  Noppatjak was among many courageous Thai journalists who got close enough to get burned.  Ultimately it’s probably far more dangerous for Thai journalists than for foreign correspondents, though foreign correspondents were taking casualties. Noppatjak is famous in Thailand and he works at “The Nation” which was also specifically threatened by militants.  I went to their offices to be interviewed and soldiers were guarding it against attack.  I spent some time with Noppatjak on the street.  He is instantly recognized.  Journalism can at times be more dangerous than soldiering.

Nothing is more powerful than still photography, though in the journalism world, photographers are often deemed the lowest rung.  “Shooters” are often seen as fungible and hirable like taxis.  Yet the truly top-notched shooters, that top percent, are not fungible, and can be a force unto themselves.  Still photography is—in my opinion as a writer—by far the most powerful and versatile method to convey powerful messages quickly and broadly.  Nothing else comes close.  Not video, not writing, not portraiture or radio or telephone interviews.  Still photography is the Big Gun of war reporting.

And yet the snobs are often the writers, who might view themselves as intellectually superior, but who when teamed up with a top-grade photographer can literally, without exaggeration, affect battlefields as would the most powerful generals.  Nevertheless, photographers generally are seen as sidekicks, supporting actors, and downrange you might hear a journalist quip, “Oh yes, the Shooters are first to the bar and last out.”  (While the writers plug away at their stories and wrestle with editors.)

Battlefield television is usually not the most powerful, but can be the most dangerous.  The crews often are larger, the gear is bigger, and during shooting (and SHOOTING!) they often try to linger on a scene to get the full effect.  Videographers must focus on the gear.  Experienced military Combat Camera folks will tell you that your chances of getting killed on the battlefield multiply when you start shooting video.  It’s true.  Also, that big camera gear often can look like a weapon, like a rocket launcher, and this can be especially so during the dramas of heavy fighting which include smoke, fire, darkness, extremely loud noises, sweat in the eyes, screaming, fear and lots of adrenaline and some guy who pokes around a corner from within the “enemy” positions and he has something on his shoulder and BAM BAM BAM BAM.  Dead.  Then comes the report, “Government security forces are believed responsible for killing of a cameraman…”

Sometimes nobody is really responsible.  Sometimes the surfer gets bashed on the rocks, the rocket explodes, or the climber is swept away in an avalanche.  It just is.

Never know where correspondents have been.  Last week they might have been reviewing restaurants when action came to their neighborhood, or they might have seen a dozen conflicts and sailed the seven seas.  As the years unfold, some of the most interesting people I meet are the experienced international correspondents, while others give the feeling they are running from child support.

Unidentified journalist taking local transport into the Red Shirt camp.

Some people blamed many journalists for catching a sort of “Stockholm Syndrome” inside the Red Shirt camp, and some of them did in fact seem to drink the Kool-Aid.  “Drink the Kool-Aid” is American slang meaning they blindly believe what are told.  The term is derived from an American cult leader named Jim Jones who persuaded about 900 people to commit suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid, and if you pay close attention you’ll often hear it around U.S. politics, or in military circles.  Even while grenades were being fired and dozens of buildings were ablaze in Bangkok, some journalists continued to spout that the protestors were peaceful and unarmed.  They were drinking the Kool-Aid.

The Reds were getting much favorable press, and so nearly all of them seemed to be extra polite and friendly with journalists which creates its own cycle.  Meanwhile, the police and Army were being polite, respectful and professional, yet not offering lunch and soft drinks.  (Of course.)  If the military offered gratuities, likely we would view it with cynicism, but when protestors did the same, it was a sign of friendliness.  I sensed that part of the friendliness was just normal Thai culture, but there also was extra-friendliness toward people with cameras.  Some of the journalists truly seemed to fall for it.  Hook, line and sinker.  Others seemed to go with the flow—keeping in mind that editors in Berlin, London and New York have strong say in their stories and if Iraq taught me anything about journalists and journalism it was that distant editors set the tone for most publications.  After the acceptable white lines of a narrative are painted, few people stray from the path.

Humans see what we expect to see, and there is no doubt that many people expected to see an Asian government using a sickening amount of force to quell dissent.  We expected to see that.  But that’s not what actually happened.  Not at all.

[More to follow.]

Please click here to read Even as the World Watched: Part I


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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Arthur peter · 11 years ago
    My God, Michael, where was the rest of this in the INTERNATIONAL PRESS!!! All the US press could do is talk about the oil leak. Boy, do we have our values backwards. Keep up the good work, and I hope to see you down range myself someday!
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Lorenz Gude · 11 years ago
    You write: "After the acceptable white lines of a narrative are painted, few people stray from the path." Just so and those white lines are the matrix we live in. The little self referential verbal gardens where reality is whatever the editors say it is. I remember John Burns of the NY Times - for whom you often voiced respect - reporting from Baghdad and putting out material that dug beneath the surface and presented a complex picture of Iraqi realities good and bad. I began to notice that his work was usually headlined by NY editors attempting to shoehorn his work into the simplistic terms of the partisan domestic political debate. Burns was senior enough and had enough integrity so he didn't have to stay completely inside the white lines. Nor of course do independent journalists. But I am beginning to understand better why you say you are a writer, not a journalist. Some of your best work occurs when your journalistic distance drops completely away and Michael Yon the writer's personal experience, or opinion comes through with arresting directness. In this post I see what you mean about the power of photos (I was a professional photographer and have some grasp of the intent of your work.) These photos convey a sense of how you experienced that environment with remarkable transparency and immediacy. There is little ego in them or put another way they draw attention to the subject and the environment, not the photographer. No journalist shots of wounded. Instead journalists waiting. Waiting for something that will fit within their particular white lines.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Rob · 11 years ago
    Great, powerful stuff. I just hit the tip jar, encourage others to do the same.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 11 years ago
    "Sounds like the U.S. government is today censoring the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico more than the Thais were doing here. "

    Would love to see your reference that the U.S. Government is censoring news coming out of the Gulf regarding the oil spill.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Minh Ameis · 11 years ago
    Michael: I wrote this on your FB, but reposting it here:

    Just ran across this today and thought you might be interested in it.


  • This commment is unpublished.
    Sharon McEachern · 11 years ago
    Many soldier recruits drink-the-kool-aid when recruiters assure them that the US govt. will take care of them if they get hurt, and for the rest of their lives, through the Veterans Admin. Hospitals. Hey, do you suppose the VA, or its hospital administrators, take a Pledge of Allegiance To The Veteran? Ethic Soup has a good post on the VA Hospital in St Louis that just sent out letters to 1,800 vets telling them that the hospital may have infected them with hepatitis and/or HIV by using comtaminated dental instruments. Improper sterilization and almost 2,000 vets could have life-threatening diseases -- more evidence that VA hospitals can kill you:

  • This commment is unpublished.
    kwgm · 11 years ago

    I'm sorry, but I don't like the idea of journalists as combatants. Sometimes it is necessary -- I've read that Ernie Pyle picked up a rifle to defend his camp on more than one occasion.

    But right or wrong, a fighting journalist is a biased journalist, and with loss of objectivity can come loss of impartial truths.

    I know that Taliban are evil -- my government and news media tells me so. But "Taliban" is a class of people -- men, women and children, indoctrinated, often conscripted, and to use an old term, brainwashed. Just like the "Evil Empire" was a large class of individuals of different ethnic groups, women and children, and in that long cold war, conquered people, abandoned to the CCCP at the end of a true world war. How many of the Evil Empire were really allies who would have been cannon fodder should push come to shove.

    Consider Cuba, where a diverse group of races and city folk, mountain folk, farmers, fisherman, and others were liberated by the humanitarian Fidel Castro, and the masochistic Dr., Che Guevara. While the Castro brothers truly fought for their peoples liberation from generations of demigod dictators, the "good" Dr. Guevara was executing thousands, many personally with a bullet in the back of the head, in the Havana stadium. Very efficient. Jack Kevorkian was by no means the first "Dr. Death" of the 20th century. There were many, including the Nazi Mengele, and the Argentine Guevara, who would have done the same in Africa and South America had he been allowed by our intelligence services.

    It sounds as if I've lost the thread of my argument, but I'm making a point about boundaries. Soldiers are soldiers, journalists are journalists. Medics are medics, and the Japanese army was famous for shooting or committing suicide while being treated by US medics in the Pacific. These are the kinds of things that happen when boundaries are crossed arbitrarily.

    What happens if a paranoiac force like the Taliban decides that journalists are actually enemy spies -- do all journalists then become fair game?

    Please, avoid the slippery slope and encourage your colleagues to do the same. The right of journalists to be recognized as non-combatants has been fought for in previous conflicts, just like the fair treatment of POWs, and medics.

    Granted, we may be dealing with an enemy, some of whom do not recognize the rules of so-called civilized society. Even so, this is a job for the military, not for journalists, or medics.

    Those journalists who wish to fight, now have options in private industry to get into the fray, thanks to the younger Bush administration. Let them join Blackwater or its new incarnation, or any of the other 100 or so mercenary corporations that have sprung up since Iraq 200 .

    But when a journalist picks a target, throws a grenade, or launches an attack, they are no longer a journalist -- they are now combatants and threaten the neutral status of fellow journalists.

    In my opinion these acts muddy the water, confuse the mission, and endangers the hard one concessions of the Geneva Conventions and other agreements of past wars, in the spirit of the concentration camps at Guantanamo and other sites hidden around the world by our government.

    It's an evil idea.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Mark Turvey · 11 years ago
    http://www.sfexaminer.com/opinion/blogs/beltway-confidential/anderson-cooper-to-obama-press-is-not-the-enemy-in-the-gulf-97761 49.html
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Scott Dudley · 11 years ago
    Thank you for the link, Mark
  • This commment is unpublished.
    mcmaddy · 11 years ago
    KWGM wrote eloquently regarding journalist combatants, but where, or when did you ever hear Michael Yon say that a journalist ahs the right to become a combatant? On the contrary, Micheal has stated on more than one occassion, that he has been protected during his embeds, as a non-combatant and the troops, whether USA, or Brits, vehemently objected to him ever picking up a weapon. So, correct me if I'm wrong. Michael's fighting days ended with the special forces from which he retired.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Michael Yon Writer · 11 years ago

    Mostly correct. The soldiers (British and U.S.) never opposed my picking up a weapon. Only the Pentagon, and then only knuckleheads at the Pentagon who were not there. Soldiers give you a high-five. Both U.S. and British often have pushed weapons my way but it's a rare occasion that I will pick one up while embedded. I will never fire a weapon while embedded under circumstances that a reasonable U.S. judge and an Infantry commander would not say, "I would have done it, too." That's always my test. I ask myself, in about 1/10th of a second, "What will the Commander say, and what will the judge say?" If the answer is YES and YES the answer is clear.

    Another important note: I have never been a journalist and do not claim to be a journalist. This is not a slag on journalists. Among my close friends are journalists. Some of my friends are scientists and doctors, too, and I am not a scientist or doctor. I am merely a writer and during unembedded situations am sometimes armed. Some journalists go armed, others roll their eyes as if it's a lowbrow thing to do. That is their choice. And besides, they are journalists and have their own rules/ethics. If they are unfamiliar with weapons, it might well be better to be unarmed. If they are extremely familiar with weapons and are willing to use them to save their life, in some situations it's far smarter to be armed. Firearms are as familiar to me as is a stapler to a secretary. Being a writer does not make anyone immune to being shot or kidnapped. Air Force medics in Afghanistan have miniguns on their helicopters, and they carry assault rifles. Journalists who insists on ALWAYS being unarmed are silly. They will get raped, tortured and murdered just like the rest.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Pete Flynn · 11 years ago
    You've been a soldier and know what to expect. I understand it won't make it any easier when shit happens. But I feel bad for the people who approach chaos, witness first-hand the horror, and are maybe never the same. I guess they're the amateurs?
    And the "shooters", well they see the worst don't they? If you've got a camera and get the shot, you've preserved that terrible moment in time. Of course sometimes you get a shot that is truly great in the process - that pic of the US soldier holding the little injured Iraqi child comes to mind. The writer - well, maybe they can avoid that moment since they didn't need to get so close. Maybe they didn't need to bear personal witness. And if you shoot and write - well, I guess you get the whole deal.
    I very much respect your willingness to be injured while providing insight that would be otherwise impossible to get.
    Please do be careful . . . .
  • This commment is unpublished.
    DesertYote · 11 years ago
    you take some mighty fine pictures. I usually wait until I have a few hours before reading one of your dispatches just so I have the time to drink in the images you capture. This situations has me a bit depressed. I have a few Thai friends ( who do not seem to be worried at all) and have worked with many others. I have found them to be very descent people in general. Your dispatches have helped give me hope that the country will not erupt in bloodshed, but with Islamists and Communist always trying stirring up turmoil, I worry.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Paul Jackson · 11 years ago
    We were taught in National Guard civil disturbance training that Journalist, especially video crews were an asset; there presence stripped the opposing force of their anonymity. Of course it was a double edged sword that kept everyone accountable for their actions.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jonny · 11 years ago
    Clearly Dan Rivers was the most intrepid of all, by your wry (and correct) definition.

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