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Canadian media at fault for rush to believe friendly-fire report Add to ...

The telling bit in the WikiLeak painted as the most damning Canadian-related entry in the already infamous Afghan War Logs isn't that the information was absolutely wrong.

For the record, Warrant Officer Rick Nolan, engineer Sergeant Shane Stachnik, Private Will Cushley and Warrant Officer Frank Mellish died on Sept. 3, 2006, just as the people who loved them were told they had died - killed by Taliban-fired rocket-propelled grenade and recoilless rifle, in what were basically three separate incidents on that long and lethal day.

They did not die, as the widely reported WikiLeak entry suggested, as friendly-fire casualties of an errant U.S. bomb.

Officials since have double-checked the Canadian Forces National Investigation Service reports, which include the results of the autopsies which are performed on every Canadian soldier who dies in Afghanistan.

Perhaps the WikiLeak was an early version of events. Perhaps the inaccurate information was attributable to the proverbial fog of war, or to a simple screw-up, easy enough given that there was a bomb dropped that day - actually two, one of which had a faulty guidance system and was rendered inert and harmless, the other of which landed "danger close" to the Canadians but also gave them a desperately needed chance to pull back.

The misinformation came up the reporting chain from a joint American/Afghan National Army unit on a day when everything that could go wrong seemed to do just that.

But how eager were the Canadian media to embrace the suggestion that their federal government - reporters are citizens too - would have lied, and lied for four years, to four families about how their sons and husbands died.

The WikiLeak entry immediately was described as raising "troubling questions" about the soldiers' deaths, the Canadian government's conduct and the military's public statements (CBC's The National Monday night).

It was said to reveal "a possible Canadian cover-up" and to contain information that had been "kept under wraps" until now (CTV News, in the leadoff item on its 11 o'clock newscast Monday night).

The Tuesday print version in The Globe and Mail included a little information box about "friendly-fire deaths" in case anyone had missed the suggestion in the main story; the earlier online version Monday night was less subtle, and included a picture of the ramp ceremony for Warrant Mellish.

What's sobering is that the correct information was there for the taking, or at least for the moderating or ameliorating of the reporting.

The seven-hour fight of Sept. 3 - part of Operation Medusa - is probably the single best-documented battle of the single best-documented combat operation in Canada's years in Afghanistan.

There was a huge number of reports, filed contemporaneously, by reporters in Kandahar at the time, none of whom was ever considered a dupe for the Canadian military.

At least two of these reporters were with the troops as they headed into the area around Pashmul and the building already famous to Canadian soldiers as the White School death house; just the month before, four members of the 1st Battalion, Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, were killed there.

As one of my colleagues remarked in an e-mail Monday night as the deaths were being reported everywhere as friendly-fire fatalities, "I'm so glad I risked my life to bear witness to events that would be forgotten by everyone four years later."

Then, in the fall of 2007, there was a three-part series published in Legion Magazine by a great young reporter named Adam Day, probably the single best account of Op Medusa and Sept. 3.

As Mr. Day wrote in the second instalment about these soldiers, now among the most decorated of Afghan war vets, "They've seen their friends lying wounded on the ground, seen them die. And they've seen their own death: It was right there, in the rockets flying by - the end of everything."

The soldiers were identified by name. I interviewed some, too, for the chapter I wrote about the death of Pte. Cushley for my book Fifteen Days, also published in the fall of 2007.

Corporal Drew Berthiaume felt the concussion go through his body when the light armoured vehicle he and Pte. Cushley were in was hit by two RPGs; Cpl. Berthiaume, not believing it for a minute, reassured Cush, as everyone called him, that it was going to be okay.

They abandoned the LAV, and five of them took cover of sorts at the back of a Zettlemeyer, the engineers' bulldozer. Master Corporal Sean Niefer was standing with Pte. Cushley on one side of him, Frank Mellish on the other, when the round from the 82mm recoilless rifle roared into the vehicle. Pte. Cushley and WO Mellish were killed.

All this was on the record.

To conclude on the strength of a brief report in the War Logs that the Canadian government and the military had covered up a huge friendly-fire incident, the men who loved those dead soldiers would have had to be in on the conspiracy, would have had to lie and keep on lying when they returned home. A series of respected journalists, including those in the field that day, would all have been fooled or duped. Distinguished commanders also would have to have been in on it.

And there was also this - the very next day, Sept. 4, there was a friendly-fire incident in which a U.S. jet mistakenly strafed the troops of Charles Company, killing Private Mark Graham and injuring so many others that the company was immediately rendered ineffective.

This was reported, contemporaneously, by Canadian reporters who were there. Why would Ottawa/Washington admit to one friendly-fire catastrophe but not to another the day before? It makes no sense at all.

This mess is not a WikiLeaks problem, nor a Canadian military problem, nor a Canadian government problem. It is a problem with the Canadian media - Ottawa-centric, conspiracy-embracing, unquestioning and unskeptical so long as the information seems damaging to the government, too quick to publish and, of course, absolutely without a shred of accountability. Shame on us.

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