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Remembering James Foley


Last Updated: 09/02/2014 10:15 am
Journalist James Foley was killed by ISIL militants on August 19.
  • Journalist James Foley was killed by ISIL militants on August 19.

By now, you probably know more about James Foley than most journalists. Foley was an idealistic independent journalist who was held captive in Syria for almost two years before he was executed by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on August 20. The gruesome video of his beheading calls into question some basic ideas that we all share the same human impulses for love and empathy.

Foley's name will now be forever synonymous with questions of American foreign policy. Should the US pay ransoms for hostages to groups we consider our enemies? Should more airstrikes be called in on ISIL in Iraq? Should ISIL be bombed in Syria? Should the US move from a policy of containment to one of elimination? Should the US accelerate its timetable to pull out of the region entirely? Whatever the answer, each of these questions raise issues of unintended consequences: How much death does a ransom payment buy? We pulled out of Afghanistan once before after arming their "freedom fighters" to the teeth. The result was 9/11.

Foley's murder will be seen years from now as a turning point in US policy, regardless of the direction the policy takes, and he will be remembered as man caught in the web of larger geopolitical forces. Before he was a headline, however, James Foley was a journalist. Long-time readers of this magazine will remember our sustained coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 through 2012, overseen by senior editor Lorna Tychostup. Lorna met Foley in Baghdad when she was transitioning out of being a war correspondent and Foley was just getting in. Lorna wrote a remembrance of Foley on her Facebook page the day he was killed.

This is one of those moments when I want the world to stop for just one minute and take in what has happened. My friend, colleague and mentor, Jim Foley, was killed today by the Islamic State, may they burn in hellfire. I replaced Jim in a project we both worked for in Baghdad. He was ready to go out into the world of war journalism and I was ready to work for an organization doing good—and definitely not be doing the freelance thing anymore. We were each at our own personal crossroads and seemingly exchanging roles. Jim, a large (in that Great Dane sort of way), gangly, affable guy always quick to smile, was also incredibly astute and a wise assessor of human nature. He kindly and patiently showed me the ropes, warned me of the antics, kooky behaviors, and varying natures of the folks I'd be working/living among, and gave me the foundation of knowledge that would see me through in the best way possible. "Go to Karrada when things get to you..." he advised more than once.

I tried to share with him as much as possible of what I knew of the freelance war journo world, not quite happy he was choosing to go into it. He was such a fine and special human. But his heart was in it and so I gave him what knowledge I had.

There are no words to describe what I feel at his death—a horrific death where you can see him brace. I only wish we could have all been there with him and that he would not have been alone. I know so many lives have been destroyed at the hands of these barbarians. But Jim is someone I knew. Someone who didn't deserve to die this way. Someone who had so much to offer the planet...

I wish you peace, Jim. I wish peace for your family, your parents, siblings, and all who knew you. Today is a sad day. I am glad to have known you. Thank you for sharing your wisdom...and your laughter.

In late 2009, Foley was embedded with a group of two dozen US soldiers in the remote Kunar region of Afghanistan. At that time, the conflict in Afghanistan had begun to shift from a war of bullets to a war of infrastructure building. The young men of Able Company that Foley lived with spent as much time in meetings with local officials trying to coordinate civil society initiatives as they did on patrol for Taliban fighters. In June 2010, we published, "Hold the Firefight," Foley's account of these soldiers who endured sniper fire at night and attended tribal councils during the day. (Many of the soldiers preferred the sniper fire.) The piece, at 4,200 words, is a model of astute war reporting, combining expert knowledge of the larger political and military forces at work with open-hearted empathy for both the impossible job of the US soldiers and the beleaguered and understandably wary Afghan populace. Would that Foley had been shown the same compassion he displayed in his writing. An excerpt from "Hold the Firefight" follows.

"I had a nightmare last night that I was in Afghanistan." The soldier said it with a smile. The kind that comes from waking up in the dark and for the first few seconds thinking you might be somewhere other than your dirt bunker or a plywood shack at Combat Outpost (COP) Badel. But no, you're in Kunar, Afghanistan, and the best thing to do is shake off the cobwebs, maybe take a Baby Wipes shower to remove the dust that accumulated overnight on your face and hair, chug a caffeine-overloaded Rip It, put on your boots, and keep busy. Whether it's pulling guard duty in a Humvee turret, burning trash, lighting the remnants of the outhouse using diesel fuel, or meeting once again with Afghan elders over their proposed district project budgets, this is home for now.

Outpost Badel is a hilltop surrounded by rock-faced mountains and terraced wheat fields separated by stacked stone. Enclosed by an outer cordon of razor wire, fortified by rock and sand-filled cardboard-and-wire barriers, and secured by heavily armored trucks topped with grenade launchers and automatic machine guns, it's one of the few remaining outposts in lower Kunar province. A small province, Kunar is located in eastern Afghanistan. Known for the prolific rate at which US soldiers have died there—42 US dead in its Korengal Valley alone before that outpost was closed about a month ago—its size is dwarfed by its reputation. Kunar's corrugated, roadless mountains and deep valleys lead into Pakistan, making it an insurgent and wood smuggler's haven. Although there are less than 500,000 Kunaris, their history of tribal independence and insurgency dating to the Soviet occupation is a constant challenge to establishing a legitimate Afghan government presence.

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