Award-winning veteran war correspondent Mike Boettcher has seen a lot during his more than 30 years working as a journalist. From being kidnapped by terrorists in El Salvador in 1985 to surviving an attack by a suicide bomber in Baghdad in the mid-Aughts, Boettcher has found himself in a number of extremely dangerous situations throughout his career.
In the new documentary “The Hornet’s Nest,” Boettcher and his son Carlos, both working for ABC News, travel with the U.S. military to Afghanistan to capture footage of U.S. soldiers at war. I sat down with Boettcher during a tour stop in San Antonio a couple weeks ago after a screening of the film.
Tell me about the first time you ever stepped foot in Afghanistan.
The first time I stepped foot in Afghanistan was early 2002. The war began after 9/11 and I went there and there actually weren’t many troops coming in. When I stepped foot in Afghanistan, there’s something about that country – that part of the world – that has so much history. You’re stepping foot into a place that has been the crossroads of history for millenniums. That was not lost on me. I knew anything we would undertake there was not going to be easy.
In “The Hornet’s Nest,” you go into Afghanistan with your son Carlos by your side, who is also a journalist. Was it difficult for you to be a journalist there doing a job and also be a father who obviously was worried about his son’s well-being?
The story takes a whole different spin with [Carlos] there. I’m a dad, so I’m looking out for my son. I’m with my son in one of the most dangerous places on earth. The one thing I couldn’t let happen was I couldn’t let my son die. People always tell me they think it’s fascinating to see a film about a father and son in a warzone telling the stories of the war. We never wanted to tell a father/son story. But people thought Americans would want to see that part of the story. We acquiesced and went ahead and told those stories about the father son relationship because it’s something everyone can relate to. Not everyone can relate to war. Through the father/son story, we wanted to tell the bigger story of the war with all these other fathers and sons and mothers and daughters who are over there.
Why don’t you think Americans relate to the war today?
I think you can see a feature movie about a war or watch a news story, but you really don’t feel it. That’s why I wanted to make this film. I wanted the American public to feel the sacrifice of war. I wanted them to feel immersed in what really happens. People die. It’s not pretty. People have a hard time relating to that. We’re here [in the U.S.] and we are safe. We have two oceans on each side of our border. We don’t have to worry as much about the war and aren’t as attuned to our security as nations in Europe are.
During the Bush Administration, the American public was never allowed to see caskets of American soldiers. That, of course, has changed in the last few years. Do you feel like that is something we needed to see to understand the sacrifice you’re talking about?
Absolutely. In the early parts of WWII, the War Department prohibited images of U.S. deaths being shown in American newspapers. People forget during WWII, there was a period around 1943 where support for WWII was flagging. President Roosevelt made a decision and it was filtered through the War Department that those images could be shown. The first time the American public saw the consequences of war was, I believe, after the Battle in Anzio (in 1944). Photographs were shown. It galvanized American public opinion to continue supporting the war. It’s a little known historical fact. So, hiding the consequences is not the way to go. We need to show what our people are doing out there day after day after day to connect U.S. citizens with the decision to go to war.
By the end of this year, the U.S. should have most of its troops finally out of Afghanistan. I know you’re going to be there with the military during that drawdown. How do you see that playing out?
We’ll see. I believe we’re still going to have about 5,000 troops stay [in Afghanistan]. Those will not be combat troops, but support troops. I think we have an obligation to see this through. Look, we pulled the ripcord and pulled everyone out of Iraq and Iraq is in total chaos right now. As Secretary Rumsfeld has said before: If you break it, you have to fix it. I think we have an obligation to support these changes that our involvement after 9/11 brought. We have to be able to help the Afghan army supply itself. We have to help with political processes and have Americans there to continue trying to movie Afghanistan toward democracy. We have to have people who can build a judicial system. We have to have people who can train police. We must continue our involvement for a period of years until Afghanistan can stand on its own.
You’ve been covering the war for so long, would you say you’ve become jaded by the things you’ve seen?
I used to think I was jaded, but then as you grow older you realize these are experiences that someone is experiencing uniquely. You may have seen something like that before, but for them, they’re in the moment. I think I took my job for granted for a few years. I was really excited when I got into journalism and I covered all these things early. What I did was something important. What I think we need to do as journalists is embrace every day. Every day is a new day. There’s a new story out there. That’s why I love this job. We never know what we’re doing the next day. As I’ve gotten older, I’m now more excited than I was when I was 21 years old.
When you look at the makeup of the young U.S. soldiers who are fighting these wars, what do you see? After 9/11, people were signing up for the military because they had a sense of patriotism. Is that still the case? Are 18 and 19 year old kids signing up because they feel they have a sense of duty to their country or has that changed?
I think a majority of them still join because they want to serve their country. There’s something in their upbringing that compelled them to serve. Of course, some get in because they don’t know what else to do.
Does that make a different type of soldier?
Initially, yeah, but once they’re there, they all become the same. I think they become committed to their fellow soldiers. The fact that they’re somewhere doing something important resonates with them. Everyone [joins the military] for a lot of different reasons, but what goes through that training funnel and comes out the other end are people who really love their country and have a connection to what it means to sacrifice for this nation. I actually think there should be some form of required national service. You don’t have to serve in the military. You can work in our schools. You can work to rebuild our nation. I think that younger generations need to be connected to their country and what it means to serve it. We get very individually orientated and lose sight of the bigger picture. People take the freedoms of this nation for granted and they shouldn’t because it could all go away.
What does it feel like to put your life in someone else’s hands when you’re on the ground in a country as dangerous as Afghanistan? Again, I know you’re there to do a job, but I’m sure the soldiers you are with feel some sense of responsibility for you.
I feel like my life is in my hands. I made the decision to go there. I don’t want the soldiers there next to me to feel like they have to protect me. Now, they do. I don’t have a weapon. But I’m a volunteer. No one put a gun to my head and told me I had to go to Afghanistan. Frankly, when it comes to warfare, there are few people in this country who are more experienced than I am. So, I know how to take care of myself.