BROOKE GLADSTONE: Iraqi audiences are at least getting some picture, albeit flawed, of the participants in the war there. Here in the US, we see Pentagon spokesmen and retired generals, but rarely the soldiers wounded while carrying out their decisions. We catch glimpses of them in a local paper's story on a hometown hero, in a PBS report, in a recent photo spread in the Sunday New York Times. But the picture is incomplete. Anyone can go to the Pentagon's own website to get the latest count of wounded in action. As of Thursday, that number was 12,005 for soldiers in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. But, according to Salon correspondent Mark Benjamin, one of the very few reporters following the stories of wounded soldiers, that number is deceptively low.
MARK BENJAMIN: What the Pentagon is doing is only reporting casualties who are hurt directly by the bullets and the bombs of the enemy. So, in other words, if two soldiers are driving in Humvees, one is shot and wounded while he's driving his Humvee, he will show up as a wounded soldier. However, if the other one drives off the road and slams into a pole and breaks his neck and is paralyzed for the rest of his life, he does not show up as a casualty. The reason why that's such a strange practice, because the Pentagon's own definition of "casualty" includes anyone who is lost to the organization for medical reasons, whether that's an accident or a horrible illness that comes on in Iraq, or whether it's by the bullets and bombs of the enemy. So, what we're seeing is a low number. The total number, if you take the number of soldiers who have been evacuated on airplanes for medical reasons out of Iraq and Afghanistan is more like 25,000.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So that's the data. Let's go to the images now. We heard about the ban on picture taking at Dover Air Force Base, where caskets arrive back in the States, but a recent story of yours suggests that the Pentagon is also trying to hide wounded from the eyes of the American public. Why do you say that?
MARK BENJAMIN: The flights of wounded fly out of Iraq or Afghanistan to a hospital in Germany and then to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The Pentagon has arranged the schedule of flights so that they only land at night, usually quite late at night - you know, around 10 o'clock; sometimes much later. And then, many of the most seriously wounded go to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, or if you're a Marine, possibly to Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Photography and reporters in general are barred from Walter Reed or from Bethesda, from seeing those soldiers arrive at all. And just the simple fact that the flights only arrive at night has had the effect of essentially blinding the American people from a drumbeat of wounded.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what reason has the Defense Department given you for the night flights?
MARK BENJAMIN: The written response was that operational restrictions at the runway in Germany, plus the time it takes to get soldiers ready to travel, dictate the departure times from Germany, and thus, the arrival times in the United States. My reporting seems to indicate that the reasons described by the Pentagon do not seem to add up with the schedule of soldiers arriving here only at night. I would also add that the number of soldiers, if you run into 'em, who came here early in the war, who were wounded and landed at Andrews Air Force Base, say they arrived during the middle of the day. If that's true, the Pentagon has changed the schedule.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what about after the land? Hospital officials have told you that the reason why you can't photograph them coming in is to protect their privacy. Isn't that legitimate?
MARK BENJAMIN: Perhaps. One of the issues, however, is that they told me there were privacy concerns with respect to getting images of the soldiers. However, I was able to obtain images of the soldiers arriving at Walter Reed without showing their faces. It certainly was not a violation of privacy. And let me tell you, I went and witnessed some of these arrivals without the Pentagon's knowledge at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. It's very, very disturbing. The wounds are quite shocking.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is it easier for you to get access to them while they are recuperating?
MARK BENJAMIN: In general, the access is limited to situations that I think can be characterized as good news stories for the Pentagon. For example, one of the things that the Pentagon is doing a wonderful job at is caring for soldiers who have very serious injuries, like amputations. And so, the press is sometimes allowed to go and meet those soldiers and witness that good news story. Now, I have found over the course of reporting the story that it is sometimes necessary for me to interview soldiers without, frankly, the interference of Pentagon officials, because I find that soldiers give me different answers when they know that they're being watched.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So Mark, how did you get into Walter Reed?
MARK BENJAMIN: I gained access to Walter Reed in order to most effectively report my story. I think I'll just leave it at that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, you've been aggressive and maybe gone around the general channels. Do you think that other reporters perhaps have dropped the ball - that this isn't just a Pentagon problem?
MARK BENJAMIN: I wish that some reporters would try harder to get just some of the basic information about this war clearly to the American people. You can think of example after example. I mean what is it going to cost us to take care of all these wounded soldiers? How many people are actually suffering from post traumatic stress disorder? How many soldiers have been sent to war in general? I think it's a little bit more difficult when we are in a situation where we don't have a divided government. I mean, for example, if let's say the Democrats ran the House and the Senate and the Republicans ran the White House, we would probably know a lot more about the torture memos and Abu Ghraib and what's going on at Guantanamo than we do now. In the meantime, I think that it would be helpful if more reporters were, frankly, less captive to their sources. I mean, it's tough, for example, for a Pentagon correspondent to really mix it up with the Army, because if you work in that Pentagon press room every day, they can cut you off and freeze you out. And I think some editors, at least, worry that sometimes their Pentagon correspondents are a little bit more captive to the Pentagon than they'd like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark, thank you very much.
MARK BENJAMIN: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon.com.
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, two court battles over intellectual property, Hollywood versus Grokster, and France versus Google.