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A Reporter's Bias

Just as it was a miracle that I escaped death from cancer, so it was every bit a miracle that despite the psychological ravages and aftermath of the disease I had eluded a spiritual death.
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On the evening of January 14, 1991, shortly after I had watched the U.S. Senate authorize war against Saddam Hussein for the first time, the Vietnam War Memorial, at other end of the mall, is nearly abandoned. It is a chilly day and there is a soft rain. But then the soft rain turns into a heavy rain; it becomes even colder, and dusk descends.

But Steve Carlson, a Marine who had fought in Vietnam, and a good friend, a fellow Marine who served with him, are standing quietly at the Wall. They are looking at the names of friends whom they served with and who died. Carlson's friend, who works for the government and lives near the Capitol, comes here often. For Carlson, this is his first time.

It does not take them long to find the names of their two friends: Randy Campbell and Carl Wenzel. At the time, there were 58,130 names on the Wall. The names are in exact chronological order, depending on when the person died. Campbell and Wenzel died in the earliest days of the war. So their names are on the first stone. And because they died together, at the same time, the names of Randy Campbell and Carl Wenzel are right next to each other.

During the debate in the Senate, which I watched from the gallery, supporters of the war resolution talked of minimal casualties, a quick victory, and a "short war."

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who won a Silver Star and Bronze Star in Vietnam, only to come home to oppose that war, implored his colleagues:

"There has been a lot of talk on this floor about treaties, resolutions, principles... and all the strategic reasons for going to war... But sometimes... in the words we lose sight of the personal stakes...

"Our VA hospitals are already full of several generations of veterans who carry or wear daily reminders of the costs of war... They cannot care for those already needing help. So, are we ready to spend the money on a new generation of patients?"

The Kerry addressing the Senate that day was a very different man from the one who a decade later would vote for a war resolution with Iraq for reasons of political expedience and his own presidential ambitions. But on this occasion, he was speaking from the heart.

Then Sen. Mark Hatfield, of Oregon, one of the few Republicans to vote against the war resolution, rose to address a near empty chamber: "We have all heard the President's promise: `This will not be another Vietnam'...

"Even the words are neat and tidy--body bags are not body bags anymore. Now body bags are `human remains pouches'. There, America, does that make you feel better? Your sons and daughters and mothers and fathers will have their faces blown off--their limbs ripped open, but they will not come home in body bags. They will come home in neat and tidy human remains pouches."

Hatfield once again pleaded to a near empty chamber that his fellow Senators not "avert your eyes." But to no avail. The Senate and House voted authorizations of war.

A short time later, I am talking to Steve Carlson and his friend about the two friends they have lost:

"Randy Campbell was a kind of golden boy. He was smart. He was sort of the all-American boy except he wasn't really American. He was a Canadian who joined the U.S. Marine Corps out of a sense of adventure.

"He was intelligent. He could outrun everyone. He could probably beat up everyone in the entire platoon.... He was real statuesque, blond hair, blue eyes."

Carlson and his friend are unsure how old Randy Campbell was when he was killed. He might have been seventeen or eighteen. Some in their platoon believed that he fudged on his age when he enlisted.

Carl Wenzel was a "quiet guy, kind of an obedient guy," by contrast. "He did what he was told. . . and that is why he died. He was told not to load his gun. We were under orders not to load our weapons until we were shot at. Carl got shot directly between his eyes before his weapon was loaded."

About ten or twelve of them had been on patrol, on a reconnaissance mission, looking for Viet Cong. They were radioed by a spotter plane and told there was a high concentration of enemy in the area and instructed to go atop a nearby hill, to settle into a defensive position.

"Randy didn't want to wait for them to come up the hill and get him. He didn't have that type of personality. So he went down to set up some booby traps as an early warning system."

Carlson, his friend, and other Marines they served with are unsure what happened next. That they don't really know how and why their friends died still causes them considerable pain--even more than twenty years later.

Some of them believe that Randy Campbell may have accidentally detonated his own booby trap: "He was stringing the wire across the trail, kind of like tripwire. We think what he did was that he hooked it to the grenade pin first and then tried to string his wire and thought [the pin] came out and it did. He wasn't sure and so he went back and grabbed the grenade and that's when it went off." Seeing the explosion, the Viet Cong commenced firing, killing Carl Wenzel as well.

But others there that day believe that the Viet Cong simply spotted Randy and opened up on him when he still had the grenade in his hand. And when he was hit, the grenade exploded.

"Whatever the case, the grenade went off that he was holding in his hand. And he was blown to pieces.

"He no longer had any body. His hands were gone. His arms were gone. His chest was gone. Part of his legs were gone. Still, it took him two full minutes to die."

I have seen too much of this grief in my years of journalism, interviewing too many families who have lost loved ones under the worst of circumstances. I have spent time with the families of murder victims. I once had to interview in a short time more than a dozen families of mentally retarded wards of the District of Columbia who had died because of abuse and neglect. I spent time in Palm Beach, Florida, interviewing the families of loved ones who died of cancer because they received substandard medical care from a corrupt HMO--kept in business over the objections of federal regulators because the owner of the HMO bribed and bought influence to keep operating.

But if there is one universal thing I have learned it is that the already unspeakable grief and pain are cruelly and exponentially compounded if there are unresolved issues as to how a loved one has died.

On this particular day, as Steve Carlson and his friend are telling me about the compounded grief they feel because they don't know exactly how their friend died, Carlson's companion tells me that for the looming Gulf War it will take a generation or longer before those who served or those of families who served and died know anything about how their nation came to this war, if they ever know.

"With Vietnam, you had the Pentagon Papers, but that was how many years into the war? What if we had known that stuff years earlier? The war would have ended earlier," Carlson's friend tells me.

Then he pledges: "I'll support... the fighting men in [this] conflict. But if there was political manipulation to get us into this war... you will see me in the streets. You will see me at train stations. And at the military bases. I'm going to get clubbed. I'm going to resist."

The year before, I had published a long investigative cover story for the Village Voice detailing how the covert foreign policies of Reagan and the first Bush administration had helped armed Saddam Hussein and brought us closer to war: "That American troops could be killed or maimed because of a covert decision to arm Iraq is the most serious consequence of a foreign policy formulated and executed in secret, without the advice and consent of the American people," I had written.

After listening to Carlson and his friend, I made a promise: I was going to write a series of articles about the government policies that had led the run-up to war. Those who served in the war and their families--and the families who had lost loved ones--wouldn't have to wait a generation to learn the truth. I was going to write about the subject contemporaneously. And I was going to do it by obtaining the government's own highly classified files and making them public.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized what a grandiose promise I had made and how improbable it was that I would be able to make good on it. But more confounding was why I was so intensely dedicated to this mission. I had no self-knowledge, and maybe I couldn't afford to have any. And I had other things going on in my life:

At the time, most everyone around me believed I was dying of cancer.

In 1987, when I was diagnosed, one pathologist wrote in a report: "In my experience over 90 percent of patients with this variety of intestinal adenocarcinoma are dead by the end of two years." This was the pathologist's polite way of saying he saw no prospects of my surviving five years at all.

My attorneys were more blunt. In public court papers, they wrote that I faced a "terminal prognosis."

Knowing that I had little chance of surviving, I filed a medical malpractice suit against George Washington University Hospital, and three doctors. My lawyers alleged that "as a result of the delay of the treatment and diagnosis of Mr. Waas' cancer, his condition changed from a curable, precancerous condition, to an incurable stage C cancer."

To put my prognosis and prospects in some perspective, I'll recall an article by someone who lost a family member to cancer at the age of 42. The author noted that someone who dies at that age had their middle age at 21. If my original diagnosis proved correct. I would have lived out my middle age at 13 or 14.

Nobody expected me to be alive for the trial. And nobody had a reasonable expectation of us prevailing: Medical records turned over by the defense during the pre-trial stages appeared to exonerate those I accused.

Standing at the wall, I didn't understand why I felt such a bond with two Vietnam Veterans, with whom I had a short, chance encounter, and whom I would never see again--or why I felt such affinity for their two fellow Marines who had been killed.

But like them, I knew that it was not good that there were unresolved questions when someone dies. I could see the pain that my family and friends were going through in anticipation of their loss. Unlike those who survived Randy Campbell and Carl Wenzel, I did not want people wondering what had happened to me twenty years later--although at the time I hardly knew this on a conscious level.

Through the litigation against the hospital, I would be able to learn the truth so there would be no loose ends regarding the medical negligence that was almost certain to take my life.

There was something else Carlson said to me that touched me, but once again I had no idea why, at least not then:

"Many veterans will never, never recover," he told me, "You can see them down here all the time. They're the walking wounded. For the rest of their lives, they've never fully integrated back into society. They never really came home.

"Some have post-traumatic stress disorders, they isolate themselves. They go through multiple relationships... They like to spend time with themselves in quiet dark places in their own bedrooms and close all the blinds in their apartments.

"They are what you call tree-line vets. You see them standing up near the trees. They won't even come down to the wall. They'll carry these emotional rocks in their haversacks until the day they die."

Those words had a tremendous impact on me, and now I understand why. In those haunted vets, I was confronting a potential mirror of myself. Five years under a death sentence at a young age, followed by the aftermath of cancer, could have led me to place where I never returned home. Just as it was a miracle that I escaped death from cancer, so it was every bit a miracle that despite the psychological ravages and aftermath of the disease I had eluded a spiritual death.

After my conversation with the friends of Randy Campbell and Carl Wenzel, some extraordinary things happened in my life:

I did not die from cancer.

I was that one in a hundred, or that one in a thousand, or that one in ten thousand, or that one in the impossible.

Please don't ask me. I just dunno.

As to the lawsuit against the hospital, once again there was an ending that no one could have expected: At trial we were able to demonstrate for the jury that some of the medical records at the core of the hospital's defense were backdated, fabricated long after the lawsuit was filed.

One of the jurors later told me their deliberations went past the morning because they wanted the free lunch. The jury awarded $650,000 in damages. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed the jury's verdict two years later, in 1994. The appeals court decision expanded patients' rights.

And also in 1992, the fifth year out since my diagnosis of cancer, and the same year that I won my legal case, I was, along with Douglas Frantz, who is currently the managing editor of the Los Angeles Times, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of Harvard University's Kennedy School's Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.

We had written more than a hundred stories about the covert foreign policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations that led to the first Gulf War with Iraq. The stories were based on thousands of pages of classified documents--from the State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, and even the National Security Council. It was considered the largest and most significant leak of classified government papers since the Pentagon Papers.

I had somehow kept a promise to two people I met at the Wall and would never see again.

Ironically, a decade later, I am virtually doing the same work:

The United States has gone to war a second time with Iraq. And it is now my job to write about whether intelligence was misused to take the nation to war, and if so, who was responsible. It's my job to attempt to explain for American servicemen and their families how they have come to be placed in harm's way. It's the best job in the world. And if the media critics are right--people like Dan Froomkin, Howard Kurtz, Jay Rosen, and Jane Hamsher--I am doing just fine in covering the story.

And being able to write about how the U.S. went to war a second time has allowed me to reacquaint myself with some old friends.

While I was writing about the origins of the first Gulf War, it was a ritual, at least every other week, to sit at dusk, or dawn, with no one else around at the Vietnam War Memorial. Near the stone with the names of Randy Campbell and Carl Wenzel.

Now, covering the origins of the second war with Iraq, I have gone back to my ritual. One reason is that I simply feel fortunate. I survived cancer. I am not a name on a Wall or on a quilt.

One of the major problems with journalism today is that too many reporters care more about their constituencies, rather than their readers or their mission. We write for our peers and prize committees. We serve at the pleasure of corporate boards and stockholders. We are too often afraid to stray too far from the conventional wisdom.

If one were to catch a glimpse of me from some distance, at an early morning hour, at the Vietnam War Memorial, they would see someone sitting all by himself, alone. But I am hardly alone. And I am home. I am with my constituency.