David Gilkey, Zabi Tamanna, and the Need for War Reporting

Entry Control Point One (ECP-1), Fallujah/Photo courtesy of J. Kael Weston

Editor's Note:

John Kael Weston represented the United States for more than a decade as a State Department official. Washington acknowledged his multi-year work in Fallujah with Marines by awarding him one of its highest honors, the Secretary of State’s Medal for Heroism. He is the author of The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan.

NPR’s Zabihullah Tamanna and David Gilkey were killed in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on June 5. I had just landed in David’s hometown of Portland, Oregon, when I received a text message about the attack on their convoy earlier that day. The Humvee they were traveling in had been destroyed by RPG fire. The news hit deep. Though I found myself surrounded by the Pacific Northwest’s green forests, my mind suddenly shifted to Afghanistan’s yellow deserts, the landscape that I knew so well, having lived almost three years in the country while working for the U.S. State Department.

Only a few weeks before, I had spent an hour in Washington, DC, at NPR’s headquarters talking with David about his upcoming trip. He and Tom Bowman, NPR’s Pentagon correspondent, described the importance of covering the war in Afghanistan despite the difficult logistical and security challenges. We parted ways, and I offered them the usual words I give when someone is headed back to the wars: “Stay safe.”

Upon hearing of their deaths, I recalled other journalists, many of them friends, who had risked so much over the years while reporting from both war zones: Baghdad-based Jane Arraf, who still defines wartime endurance; Dexter Filkins, then of The New York Times, who transcribed so well Fallujah to millions of readers; Peter van Agtmael on patrol, camera gear always close, trudging alongside Marine grunts across the Helmand River Valley (his Disco Night September 11 is a must-see collection); NPR’s Quil Lawrence, Tom Bowman, and Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, all part of one of the most persistent combat zone reporting teams, tape recorders in hand; Rajiv Chandrasekaran, formerly of the Washington Post, staying on the job despite the near-crash of his fishtailing helicopter above Helmand’s Nawa District; and Marie Colvin, who asked a Marine commanding general and me some of the boldest and best questions in a blunt exchange at Camp Leatherneck. She would later be killed while reporting in Syria.

I remembered the Associated Press’s Julie Jacobson, who used to reminisce with me in Helmand’s Nawzad District about our former lives in the Colorado Rockies and Utah’s Red Rock deserts. This was before she witnessed the death of Marine Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard. Jacobson’s controversial and award-winning photo of this Marine’s last moments alive brutally, and honestly, conveys the human cost of war.

During my seven years in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I came to know well this special tribe of photojournalists and reporters to which David and Zabi, a local hire and Afghan native, belonged. Brave and conscientious, they shared a commitment to get their stories to as wide an audience as possible. David’s photos from Iraq and Afghanistan had particularly moved me, along with those from beyond the wars: dust-covered Marines on patrol in Sangin District; WIA amputees recovering stateside; global medical efforts to combat Ebola; the devastation in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

Later that night in Portland, while participating in a book event, I paid tribute to David and Zabi. I reminded the assembled bookish Oregonians that media embeds often did their work without U.S. Marine or soldier escorts, frequently did not sleep at night behind HESCO barriers or razor wire, and maneuvered through combat zones usually with little more than a war-wise local partner (like Zabi) and the good will of Afghan or Iraqi hosts. Zabi and David were killed while traveling in an Afghan Army convoy, without U.S. troops, in a place called Marjah. This poppy-filled area is known as “Little America” because of the massive canal projects funded by the U.S. government half a century ago. It was the scene of some intense fighting after President Obama surged thousands of troops into Helmand in late 2009 and 2010. Simply put, Zabi and David were covering an important story in a remote war. They were there to bring America’s longest war a bit closer to home.

David’s and Zabi’s tragic deaths also brought to mind an Iraqi journalist and friend from Fallujah. Ibraheem was an editor who doubled as a daily reporter for the local newspaper, Al-Bashara. After we Americans arrived in the invasion of his country, he believed us when we said that freedom of the press would be a right in the new Iraq, even in a place as violent as Fallujah. Balding with deep brown eyes and a posture bent with age, he would ask Marine regimental commanders and me on-the-record questions about our latest security and reconstruction efforts. The words he wrote became his sentence in a region filled with Al-Qaeda assassins, insurgents, and bombs. Not long into his job, and after filing stories under his real name, terrorists shot him dead.

Ibraheem’s death was just one among many. In addition to the American and international journalists who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should remember the others. Hundreds of Iraqis and Afghans (Syrians too) in the same dangerous profession have already joined this long red list.

As I left NPR’s offices in Washington the day before David and his colleagues Tom Bowman and Monika Evstatieva would fly to Afghanistan, I asked him if he planned to give up the war beat for something quieter and a lot safer.

“Not yet,” he said. “These wars are not over. We need to keep going.”