What it means to tell a true war story

Kevin Sites in Kashmir, 2006. Photo by Dar Yasin.

Newsfeeds inundated with stories about conflicts symbolize a predicament of our current disrupted world. As news agencies grapple to stay updated on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a fundamental question we must ask: Is the news coverage spreading useful information and starting meaningful discussions? How do we, as journalists, cover conflict so that we have any chance of preventing future conflicts? 

To answer these questions, N3Magazine interviewed veteran war journalist Kevin Sites. During his career, Sites has covered dozens of wars and natural disasters. In 2005, for the Hot Zone project, he embarked on a year-long journey to cover nearly every conflict in the world, starting in Somalia and ending in Israel. After witnessing the misery and sorrow of war, he learned a critical lesson: civilians, not combatants, are the biggest victims of war.

The biggest lie we believe about war

The harming of civilian populations is a recurring theme in familiar war stories: Putin’s shelling of Mariupol, the Rwandan genocide, Truman’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the crusaders’ siege of Jerusalem. Civilian destruction is the most devastating aspect of any war. In addition to gunfire, civilians suffer because of displacement, disease, landmines, and sexual violence, only to face the aftermath of destruction and trauma.

Oddly enough, what we see in the media coverage of wars fails to focus on the most destructive part of a war, but rather the loudest: battles. Combats and military casualties are disproportionately megaphoned compared to the devastating impacts of civilian destruction, which are often shrouded under the euphemism “collateral damage.” 

“We as journalists as well as society, have a tendency to misrepresent war as combat,” said Sites.  “I’ve found in my year of covering wars that combat was a very rare part of it. It’s expensive, people don’t necessarily want to die, so they aren’t doing it in large numbers, and they’re not going out fighting every day; they can’t afford to do so,” Sites recalls. Instead of fighting, combatants target population centers, bombing and destroying and crippling civilian life.

Civilians evacuating the southern Lebanese city of Tyre during a cease-fire in the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Photo by Kevin Sites.

Then why don’t journalists focus on civilian coverage? Sites explains that the problem is journalists, like the public, are drawn to the adrenaline of combat coverage. This perfect equilibrium of supply and demand creates an entire market of dramatic combat stories, silencing the already reticent voices about civilian destruction. Sites, although aware of the reality of war, was under pressure to feed the newsroom with more combat coverage. 

“During the Hot Zone project, the truth was there for me, but I still took pictures of guns. I still covered battles. In fact, the battles were the things that won me the award. It wasn’t the reflective writing that I was doing

Why we need more coverage of civilian destruction

The Hot Zone project started as a truth-seeking journey for Sites. One reason he agreed to the project was that it seemed to be an opportunity to learn something profound. “I wasn’t gonna take that much risk of putting myself into conflict zones for a year straight, unless there was gonna be a payoff for me, as a journalist and as a human being, to gain understanding,” Sites explains. 

A continuous odyssey in conflict zones, as opposed to intermittent parachute landings, promised Sites the chance to gain formative wisdom about war, or perhaps spot a ubiquitous pattern. 

The revelation came quickly. Early into the project, within the first few conflict zones, the truth became apparent to Sites: combats are but a small part of a war. 

He witnessed landmines maiming children and adults alike. Sexual violence was being used as a weapon of war, terrorizing the civilian population into leaving their territory. Children were kidnapped and brainwashed and turned into fighters, servants, and wives for adult soldiers. And combats, amid the prevalent civilian suffering, were but patchy occurrences. 

Once the truth became apparent, a problem with the typical war coverage presented itself. The problem with viewing war as a series of combats is its inherent falsehood; reporting only a part of the whole truth is to lie by omission. Sites warns that the misrepresentation of war brings dire consequences. 

“The fact that we have so little understanding and that we just report the battle means that civilization, for the most part, is going to be condemned to perpetually repeat these mistakes.” 

How to cover collateral damage

Seeing the reality of war occupied Sites with a question: “How do we cover war realistically and inherently truthfully?” 

He came to the conclusion that he needs to include more civilians in his coverage. Because the subject of his coverage changed, Sites had to step outside of the combat zones to hunt for human stories. 

“I had to make sure to make a concerted effort to include [civilian destruction]: I’m gonna go to a refugee camp. I’m gonna interview child soldiers. I’m gonna make sure that I’m not just interviewing men. I should be interviewing women.” 

In addition to reporting numbers and hard facts about civilian destruction, it is critical to include intimate, vivid human stories. Reports on the number of casualties and occupied territories fall short in altering the public’s perception, which is largely inured to remote atrocities. Facts are only a lifeless representation of reality and are not enough to capture the whole truth. Human stories help us paint war with both realistic and impressionistic truths. 

“I use the Congo as an example,” said Sites.  “In a period of about five years in the 90s in the Congo, between two and five million people died. Now, those are WWII numbers. Very few people know about this … the reason we don’t remember it is because it didn’t happen on the battlefield. It happens for the most part because of disease, sexual violence, land mines, and all the things that accompany war, violence against the civilian population.”

“So those kinds of things end up not grabbing our attention in the way they should. If you look back at it, those are huge numbers, and it means a lot. But how does it capture our imagination? The only way that you really change the way that people think is to capture their imaginations well. It’s not enough just to get them the facts. We learned that. We’re kind of living in a post-fact world, unfortunately.”

By including civilians in his news stories, blogs, and books, Sites shed light on the suffering of the civilians in conflict zones. 

A journalist’s paradox

“Oh, they’re animals over there! Thank God we’re not them.”

This is the reaction that Sites got from some readers who read his story about an eleven-year-old Afghani girl that had been severely abused by her family-in-law. On a different occasion, Sites recalls an interview on The Sean Hannity Show on Fox News, where the host asked him to describe the “barbarism in Afghanistan.” 

Although coming from only a fraction of his audience, it disheartened Sites when he saw that some used his stories to indulge in a sanctimonious relief, largely blind to the perils in their own society. Such unwarranted reaction from the public remains a paradox for journalists. Reports on conflicts and destruction channel public attention to evil, knowingly or otherwise. This brings an unintended consequence to a journalist’s mission of public service.

“When we cover something, good or bad, we’re giving it publicity. It’s an issue whether our coverage educates people or promotes bad behavior.” 

Although disheartened, he was not discouraged. Sites used his blog to put his stories in context. He wrote three books about his experience as a war correspondent, resurfacing the civilian suffering he witnessed. To reach an audience outside of his nonfiction readership, he has written a novel called “The Ocean Above Me,” where he tells the story of a war journalist struggling with PTSD. The novel will be published in 2023. 

Eastern Afghanistan in 2013; a child standing among U.S. soldiers searching a qalʿahs, or mud brick compound. Photo by Kevin Sites.

What it means to tell the truth

Covering wars takes a toll on a journalist’s psyche. Looking at suffering through a viewfinder doesn’t mollify the pervasive distress in the air. Becoming a witness to suffering is to be its stakeholder, and the journalist carries the psychological burden forever. 

A disrupted world presents situations and dilemmas that might be overwhelming for a human mind to bear. Sites advises his fellow journalists to come to terms with themselves, with a clear purpose of telling the truth. 

The most important thing is to remember we’re human beings first. “It’s our job to witness terrible things. We wanna remember that we’re human beings first, and we need to come to work with a set of ethical guidelines that will help us to do the job the best that we can and still be able to sleep with the person that we are at the end of the day and have a clear conscience. And telling the truth should never dirty your conscience. No matter how painful it is, we have to tell the truth. We have to be loyal to it.”

To Sites, being loyal to the truth means telling the civilian story, because covering civilian suffering is the only way to tell a true war story. While statues and monuments for combatants constantly remind us of their sacrifices, the unknown suffering of civilians fades in our collective consciousness. 

Journalists have the power to form narrativesa collection of imaginations and beliefs that ultimately shape our perception. By telling true war stories, we can help strengthen narratives that are rightfully wary of the consequences of war.