While reporting in Iraq in the early 2000s, Mary Walsh saw every day the ramifications of war and noted the complicated effect that the U.S. military has on countries it inserts itself.
“You can be a super power in a fight like this, but you’re really the third guy in, because there’s the government, in Iraq or Afghanistan, and there are the insurgents,” she said, “and in the middle are U.S. forces and the people of that country.”
The U.S. military’s presence in Iraq was both dangerous and unwelcome by many, something that would work against them as they waged war against the government of Saddam Hussein. Walsh learned this when she interviewed the now retired U.S. Army general Stanley McChrystal for a segment she produced for the television news magazine 60 Minutes.
“(McChrystal) said, ‘This is something that takes a tremendous amount of understanding. If the people are against us, we cannot be successful. If the people view us as occupiers and the enemy, we cannot be successful and our casualties will go up dramatically,’” Walsh recalled.
When U.S. Marines began attempts to connect with Iraqi civilians, delivering water and sugar – an “important” everyday cultural staple used in tea – to their doors when they had no access to them due to the government cutting off supplies, things began to change. They began fostering a sense of understanding and support for their cause.
“What I saw in Iraq, especially acutely on that first trip, is that no nation wants the tanks and soldiers of another nation on their streets. Nobody wants that,” Walsh said. “And the U.S. Army and Marine Corp had convinced the local people of Iraq and Afghanistan that this was a good thing.”
Recalling this realization brought a smile to Walsh’s face when she told the story to a crowd gathered for her lecture, Body Armor and MRE’s: A Reporter’s Journey to War with the U.S. Military, sponsored by the World Affairs Council of San Antonio, on Tuesday.
“(The Yazidis) were so happy that the American forces were there,” she said. “When we went to get on the helicopter, we were swarmed by all of these young people and they were all chanting ‘George Bush! George Bush! George Bush!’ and we put that on CBS Evening News. It was just an amazing moment of really doing something good for these people.”
As a producer for CBS News, Walsh has traveled all over Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East to meet with and tell the war-torn stories of rebel fighters, U.S. soldiers, and civilians alike.
On Tuesday, she shared some of her personal photos and experiences with a crowd of retired politicians, reporters, and U.S. ambassadors, and other San Antonians – stories of time spent embedded in conflicts in places like Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan reporting on battles that resulted in both U.S. victories and defeats. Walsh is now the national security producer for CBS News.
Along with the moments of pride and hope like the one she experienced with the Yazidi civilians in Iraq, Walsh has also seen how U.S. intervention in war-torn countries is often unwelcome and fought against by civilians. She has reported on some of the deadliest battles in U.S. history, including the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia that was the worst day of casualties in the history of U.S. special operations. She knows of two occasions when platoons “went into Alamo position,” during battle, she said, in reference to the Battle of the Alamo where brave soldiers fought from within the mission’s walls.
Over the years, she has told these stories and many others to television audiences across the country and she has won five Emmy Awards among a slew of other special recognitions.
Her video feeds from years of reporting are “carefully catalogued” into a comprehensive video library, she said, portraying the complicated and at times disheartening journey of the U.S. military in wartime.
“I was carefully collecting air strikes, taking Baghdad, and then that library goes to these discs that are labeled ‘Post-War’ and then very hopefully ‘Iraq Rebuild,’” she said. “And then they turn to ‘U.S. Troops Attacks’ and then really terribly ‘The Battle of Fallujah.’ And it’s General (David) Petraeus who famously (said): ‘Tell me how this ends.’”
Walsh gets aggravated, she said, because when she shares what she’s seen to U.S. friends and acquaintances, often “no one has any idea what I’m talking about.
“American men and women fought there and died there and in some cases performed so heroically that they received our nation’s highest honor, but all too often our citizens remain comfortable 8,000 miles away,” she said.
She recognized that telling and hearing the stories from the battlefield aren’t always easy, but the public should have a better understanding and appreciation of what the cost of freedom in the U.S. looks like.
“It aggravates me that two weeks ago I posted on Facebook a picture of me and Morgan Freeman, I met him at the White House correspondent’s dinner … and that got hundreds of ‘likes’ and when I posted about Clint Romesha and the Battle of COP Keating I got about five or 10,” she said.
The majority of U.S. citizens are left in the dark about many wartime casualties and occurrences due to censorship and caution used by the government, but the evolution of the television news business has made it more difficult for reporters to gain valuable screen time to tell the stories of war overseas.
Walsh wishes “we could go back to the days when news divisions were not seen as a profit-making center,” because then the focus would be more on telling the story instead of worrying about how much it costs to tell the story.
She didn’t expect that she would be a war reporter for so long, but Walsh has learned the true impacts war has on national morale and governmental trust across the globe.
“Going to war is the most profound act of any nation,” she said. “To the citizens it is in some ways an act of ultimate trust in your nation’s leaders, that they have weighed the options, that they have gone to war only as a last resort, that they have come up with a plan to not only to start, but end that war.”
Top image: CBS News National Security Producer Mary Walsh says it’s important for television news networks to be able to tell real stories without worrying about the cost. Photo by Camille Garcia.