BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. On October 13th, the Washington Times reported an American soldier based in Iraq as saying "if one person dies, 5 or 6 are getting wounded, but people are only hearing about the one who was killed." In fact, as of October 30th, the total number of American soldiers wounded since the war began has reached 2,084. That's 1745 wounded in hostile combat and 339 in non-hostile action. New Republic senior editor Lawrence Kaplan recently wrote on "America's near-invisible wounded." Since that piece was published, we here at On the Media have noticed a very slight uptick in the mentions of the non-fatal casualties. This was NBC reporter Norah O'Donnell at the press conference at the White House last Tuesday.
NORAH O'DONNELL: Mr. President, if I may take you back to May 1st when you stood on the U.S.S. Lincoln under a huge banner that said Mission Accomplished. At that time, you declared major combat operations were over, but since that time there have been over a thousand wounded, many of them amputees who are recovering at Walter Reed.
BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence Kaplan joins me now. Lawrence, welcome to the show.
LAWRENCE KAPLAN: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: You went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Tell me about that experience.
LAWRENCE KAPLAN:It was actually an incredibly revealing experience, but a particularly upsetting experience as well. I had heard from sources in the military that every night these huge C-17 and C-141 transport planes were landing at Andrews Air Force Base here in Washington from large Army hospitals in Germany and then every night under cover of darkness, ambulances would bring them to Walter Reed, and it was something that just had not been mentioned in any of the press reports that at least I had read. So I arranged to go up to Walter Reed, and after much difficulty, because I, I don't think the military was keen to have reporters walking around Walter Reed, but at, at any rate, it was very upsetting, because what you're faced with is essentially 18, 19, 20 year old kids who are missing arms and legs. I mean Walter Reed, for all of its superb medical care nonetheless has the feel of a Civil War hospital. You cannot walk down a corridor or through a waiting room or through the lobby without seeing young amputees.
BOB GARFIELD:Well apart from the manifest horror of the scene, obviously dead men tell no tales, and wounded men have stories to offer. Did these soldiers in fact have stories to tell that you believe were illuminating?
LAWRENCE KAPLAN: They did. Now we're hearing a lot that there's upwards of 30 attacks a day in Iraq. At the time, Central Command in Iraq wasn't putting a figure for the number of attacks every day, and these soldiers spoke about being under fire routinely, day in and day out. That struck me as somewhat at odds with the coverage. I don't think the impression one gets here, despite the carnage we see every night on TV, is that your average soldier in the field is really under fire on a daily basis. A young soldier from North Dakota told me he was on a river patrol boat looking for Saddam loyalists on the river banks and suspicious activity, and he just said every day his boat came under fire from the river bank, and every day they returned fire, and it really struck me that this is something more than a mopping up operation. And of course that soldier had lost his arm in one of these attacks.
BOB GARFIELD:Now you mention that the Pentagon wasn't exactly leading press tours of Walter Reed. Do you believe that they've actively interfered with the media's coverage of the wounded?
LAWRENCE KAPLAN: It did strike me as odd that any reporter could easily go to Baltimore/Washington International Airport and cover the soldiers coming home on leave, but-- Andrews is really shut down. Reporters just can't get in there at night to see these wounded coming back. But of course I think as a policy, and I may be wrong on this, but I think as a policy this pre-dates the Bush administration, so I don't think there is an active attempt. I think most of it actually is just laziness, if you will, on the part of the media. The Army bureaucracy I don't think was eager to have me up there, and it took an unusual amount of pushing and prodding to get the interview, but once I did, they were terrific.
BOB GARFIELD:There are those who have much more sinister suspicions. TomPaine.com, the liberal web site, said that the under-coverage of the wounded was because the biased press once again was, you know, kowtowing to the administration. Now you yourself were writing pro-war stories in the lead up the Iraq war. Do you think this is a political story, the under-coverage itself?
LAWRENCE KAPLAN: You know, I think the media, particularly in the past few weeks, have become sensitive to these accusations coming from the administration and from the conservative press that the media is somehow biased and we're somehow not covering the whole story in Iraq, and I think at some level that's made them re-assess what kind of stories they've been doing, and I, I actually think just watching the network news over the past few nights that I'm seeing evidence of a conscious effort to report roads paved, wells dug, those kinds of stories in Iraq, and I think that is at some level a response to the administration's criticism, and indeed polls which have showed that the public thinks the media is biased on Iraq. But on this story, I, I would certainly understand how some reporters would think this somehow will be construed as piling on, but I don't think reporting on the wounded is piling on at all. As you pointed out, I've written many pro-war columns, and indeed I still support the ongoing operation in Iraq. But I, I really do think the media has a duty to let the public know what's happening to soldiers on the ground there.
BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence, thank you very much.
LAWRENCE KAPLAN: Thanks for having me, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Lawrence Kaplan is a senior editor at the New Republic and a newly appointed fellow at the Hudson Institute. [MUSIC]