As I watched “The Vietnam War,” the extraordinary documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, over the last few weeks, I was struck by the level of access U.S. journalists had to cover that war.
They lived and worked in Saigon, they were side-by-side with soldiers as they lost their friends in ultimately useless battles, and they were able to discern when the official line from Washington bore no resemblance to what they were seeing on the ground.
That kind of coverage is not extinct today, but it is endangered. Governments, including the U.S., restrict journalists’ access to the frontlines (or to countries altogether).
Terrorist groups with no respect for the role of independent journalists are willing to take them hostage, and torture and kill them for spectacle and propaganda.
And most newsrooms don’t have the budgets to maintain foreign bureaux around the world and pay for the security needed to protect journalists in conflict zones.
Then there are the wars themselves. U.S. involvement in Iraq, Mali, Syria, Yemen, now Niger and elsewhere is far from transparent. Drone strikes, small teams of advisors and special forces, targeting and intelligence support, and weapons sales can be pivotal to a war effort, but they are difficult for a reporter to bring out of the shadows.
This is one reason why last week’s doubleheader from Frontline is such important viewing. In both documentary films airing on Wednesday night, the viewer is given a rare glimpse at how two of today’s opaque wars are being fought, both with the help of the United States.
In May, Frontline filmmaker Martin Smith and his team became the only foreign journalists given permission to enter Yemen, where a military coalition led by Saudi Arabia is fighting Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Their film, “ Inside Yemen,” is brief, but it immediately brings to life what it looks like when, as Smith describes it, “You have the region’s wealthiest country bombing the region’s poorest.”
The destroyed buildings and bomb craters are the obvious signs of what this war is doing to the country, but the more insidious and truly haunting impacts of the war are taking place in struggling hospitals across the country.
There, often without pay, doctors are racing to keep up with a cholera epidemic that’s resulted in over 700,000 suspected cases, 25 percent of which are children under age five. Over 2,100 people, mostly children, have died from the disease so far.
Smith visits a hospital where two small emaciated girls — one still a baby — are living on the cusp of death. They mercifully begin to receive treatment for their dehydration, but it’s not clear whether they’ll make it.
“We had to leave the hospital before we knew what the fate of the girls was going to be,” Smith says. “I don’t know what happened to them. All I do know is that health workers in Yemen say that every 10 minutes, a child dies of preventable causes.”
Smith, whose visit was overseen by “Houthi minders,” acknowledges that “there is a lot of blame to go around here,” but notes that, “Nothing has caused as much death and destruction as the Saudi bombs.” A recent UN report noted that, “Coalition airstrikes continued to be the leading cause of child casualties as well as overall civilian casualties.”
Saudi Arabia and its partners, including the United Arab Emirates, are getting help from the United States. The U.S. has sold both countries billions of dollars worth of weapons, and has provided intelligence and aerial refueling for coalition aircraft in the two years since the war began. Meanwhile, the Houthis are aided by Iran, but how much support Iran is providing is unclear.
The film ends reminding us of President Donald Trump’s trip to Riyadh in May, when he famously placed his hands on the glowing orb with Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in what was supposed to be a gesture of solidarity against terrorism.
That’s not how it was viewed in Yemen. Smith attended a “Call to Say No to American Terrorism” rally in Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, that same month, where thousands gathered to protest Trump’s Saudi trip during which a new multi-billion dollar arms deal was announced between the two countries.
Americans might not be paying attention to Yemen, where over 10,000 civilians have been killed and 7 million currently face famine, but the people there are paying close attention to the choices the United States is making.
“Mosul,” the other Frontline documentary showing on Wednesday night, does not attempt to address these kinds of macro issues. It doesn’t even mention the United States or what role it’s playing backing Iraqi security forces as they fight the Islamic State. Instead, it tells the story of 10 soldiers in an Iraqi Special Forces squad as they battle block by block to take back Mosul, which was captured by ISIS in June 2014.
Much of it reminded me of similar scenes of camaraderie I’d just watched in “The Vietnam War.”
“If one of us is in trouble, we go to their rescue,” one of the men says. “Our friendship is unbreakable.”
At the squad level, the war is simply killing the enemy, staying alive, and surviving the death of your brothers in arms.
The war’s toll can be measured partly by what these men did not become. One wanted to be an engineer until his father was killed by a car bomb. Another had dreams of becoming a soccer player, but instead hunts Islamic State fighters.
A different scene of stolen innocence comes when one of the soldiers asks a boy to identify the Islamic State fighters hidden among the civilians in a recaptured hospital. The boys insists there are none. An Iraqi soldier tells the boy that he’ll kill him if he doesn’t tell. The boy is totally unphased by this and sticks to his guns: no fighters here.
In another scene, the soldiers force a civilian to check for ISIS snipers. He sticks his head out into the road and looks for them. When they ask him to do it again, he refuses, saying he has a family and kids.
“If one bullet comes towards us, I’ll empty my gun in your head,” the soldier tells the man.
In the end, it took 266 days to retake Mosul from ISIS, with 20,000 civilians killed. The city’s liberation is surely to be celebrated, but this film reminds you of the fear, pain and violence everyone has lived through to get to this point, and that only raises questions about what kind of future will follow.
Kate Brannen is the deputy managing editor of Just Security and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. Previously, she was a senior reporter covering the Pentagon for Foreign Policy.
More from Newsweek