There are about 30 ongoing conflicts in the world. Contrary to conventional wisdom and blissful ignorance, the big wars since World War II have not been limited to Vietnam, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or the current wars endearingly known as Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom – i.e., the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Kevin Sites broke with the Iraq-War pack of journalists in 2005 to embark on an ambitious project: covering all current armed conflicts in one year. He missed a couple here and there, but in the end Sites made it to 21 war zones, some planned (like Somalia), others ad hoc (like the Lebanon-Israel 34-Day War). More importantly, however, Sites went beyond the numbers: his coverage was not about the death toll and the money spent, but about the civilian cost of wars.
The damages appeared in written dispatches, photo essays and videos on the Yahoo Hot Zone Web site. The project was unusual not only in its geographic span – after all, with more than 4,300 U.S. troops dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Washington Post, and many more injured, how often do we hear about Chechnya or Haiti or Sri Lanka – but also for its journalistic ambition. Sites traveled as a SoJo (solo journalist) utilized all media available, reported for the Web and was not bound by editorial limitations of network TV (his previous employers include ABC, CNN and NBC).
Hot Zone gained a steady readership; it got more than 970,000 hits a month, according to a New York Times article. And, it became the front page for stories otherwise only intermittently told.
Sites is no stranger to telling the mainstream stories, however. He is responsible for one of the most controversial pieces of journalism to come out of Iraq: the shooting of captured enemy combatants in a mosque during the 2004 Battle of Fallujah. NBC’s decision not to air the tape in its entirety showed Sites one of the biggest problems in media: not trusting the public with the information.
This lesson, albeit a hard one for Sites who still receives hate mail for being unpatriotic, informed his reporting and style for Yahoo!, where he reported with sincerity, presenting the information without a network filter.
It’s been slightly more than a year since Sites came back. In the span of four quick months, he compiled his memoirs, Hot Zone stories and videos in a package that includes a book and a DVD documentary: In the Hot Zone – an intimate look into Sites’ mind and the world he lived in for a year.
In the Hot Zone’s best qualities are its quick, newsy style and its ability to add another layer of humanity to war by providing the honest reactions of a Westerner. I couldn’t help thinking of the late Ryszard Kapuscinski while reading Sites’ account of conflict in Africa. And while Sites does not possess Kapuscinski’s lyrical formulation in presenting tragedies, his straight-forward style lends itself perfectly to telling the stories of those most affected by war.
Sites accomplishes one of his main goals, “providing more coverage to the world’s nameless and voiceless conflict victims,” by bringing the story home in a published form after successfully keeping readers abreast of developments in far flung corners of the world.
In The Hot Zone is a fresh look at wars that flash across CNN once in a while or make for good feature articles in the weekend edition of your paper. What Sites reminds the reader is that his subjects, whose lives are torn apart by wars, are very real – whether you realize it or not.
Tomorrow: An interview with Kevin Sites.