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January 9, 2010

Mike Tharp: A holiday at home interrupted

Matthew Fisher was sitting in an easy chair in front of a fire in his mother's house in Ottawa, Canada, Dec. 30. Sipping a Canada Dry, his favorite beverage, he'd arrived home after spending several weeks in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he's based for CanWest, Canada's largest newspaper chain.

It was the first Christmas for the family since his father, Doug, had died in the autumn. He was looking forward to spending 10 straight days with his mom, as well as time with his three brothers, numerous nephews and nieces and, of course, attending several hockey games featuring his beloved Senators.

The phone rang.

Ninety minutes later he was airborne. Heading back to Afghanistan. His colleague, Michelle Lang, a 34-year-old reporter from the Calgary Herald, had been killed in an IED explosion, along with four Canadian soldiers. She'd been in-country just over two weeks and was scheduled for a six-week deployment while Matthew was on R&R.

After 30 hours -- from Toronto to London to Dubai and finally to Kandahar, the huge airbase in southern Afghanistan -- Matthew started doing what he does best. War reporting. He's been in 14 wars or conflicts and visited 153 countries. He's also come to Merced three times since 2007 on holiday.

Early in the New Year, he was faced with a job no journalist ever wants -- writing about the death of a colleague. "I bid Michelle Lang adieu on New Year's Day in the belly of the military transport that was to take her on the first leg of her last journey home to loved ones on the far side of the earth," he wrote.

"As I knelt alone before the casket, which was covered with a large Canadian flag and situated next to the caskets of four soldiers who died with her in a landmine attack on the outskirts of Kandahar City last Wednesday, I told Michelle that she had made a wonderful impression on the soldiers whose lives she had touched last month and how much she was already missed by them and by her colleagues here and elsewhere."

Last Sunday Matthew called Merced. He'd been up three straight days -- traveling, reporting, writing. His voice, usually resonant enough to once have been a hockey announcer, sounded as if he were speaking through a drain pipe. Shifting from subject to subject, he said he was most worried that because of the tragedy, CanWest might cut back its coverage of the war.

Afghanistan is Canada's first major conflict since the Korean War. There are about 2,800 Canadian troops in the country, third behind the U.S. and Britain. They're scheduled to be removed by July next year, and there've been numerous protests in Canada about pulling them out sooner.

Last year 32 Canadian soldiers died, the same number as in 2008; the highest number of casualties was 36 in 2006. So far, 951 American troops have been killed in the war, which started in late 2001. So far, no one from Merced County has been killed there, to join our seven dead from the war in Iraq.

So why should you care about Matthew Fisher or Canadian forces or even the entire war in Afghanistan? Most Americans cite domestic issues -- lack of jobs; the void of affordable health care; failing students and mail-it-in teachers; crime, gangs and drugs; government corruption and inefficiency at all levels; the decline of civil conversation -- as the problems most in need of urgent solutions.

The Sun-Star itself practices hyperlocalization of news. We're the franchise for what we cover in our audience area. We've sent two correspondents to Iraq twice last year and 2008, but we focus on in-depth reporting about local people and issues.

But your preferences and most of coverage reveal a paradox. In an era when global interdependence illustrates "the butterfly effect" -- a butterfly in India waves its wings and an earthquake rocks Loma Prieta -- our lives are tied to events unfolding on the other side of the planet.

Remember the plague of metal thefts a couple years ago in the county? People stole irrigation pipes and sprinklers because of construction demand in China for scrap metal. When Chinese demand slumped, so did the thievery.

Look at the Chinese men training to become pilots at various aviation schools at Castle. How much of our almond tonnage goes to Japan? Where do our Wal-Marts get a lot of their products? Hilmar Cheese has become internationally recognized as an exporter: Hilmar whey protein and lactose products are sent to more than 40 countries. Its cheese is also sold abroad, especially in Japan, as the popularity of pizza and burgers has soared.

But it is war and the toll and cost of war that matter most to our livelihood and destiny. The ripple effects from Iraq and Afghanistan touch Mercedians and Mauritanians alike. The impact may be as direct as losing a loved one. Or it may be as indirect as a forced visit to Mercy's ER because you don't have health insurance -- one of the results of spending more than $1 trillion on two wars since 9/11.

(Matthew wrote a recent story that it costs Canadian taxpayers about $525,000 a year to keep one Canadian soldier in Afghanistan; that doesn't include their pay, benefits or long-term health costs, and the estimate is in line with Pentagon numbers on what it costs to keep U.S. troops in South Asia.)

While Matthew has been in Kandahar, McClatchy, our parent company, has deployed four people there: foreign editor Roy Gutman; Pentagon correspondent Nancy Youssef; Tom Day of the Macon, Ga., Telegraph; and Chuck Liddy of the Raleigh, N.C., News & Observer.

The Sun-Star has carried their dispatches and photographs. We'll keep doing that because what happens there means a lot to us in Merced County, even if it's not clear to us right away. We need to know what our military policies do on the ground -- to our own troops, to Iraqis and Afghans and, yes, to Canadians.

Which brings us back to Matthew Fisher. Mike Hedges, managing editor of the Washington Examiner, and a veteran war correspondent, wrote to Matthew: "What you are doing is critical work, performed by an accomplished professional, at a level that very few can match." Richard Pyle, recently retired from the AP and for five years Saigon bureau chief, wrote about "my own experience in writing stories, and a book, about the deaths of soldiers I never knew and journalists who were valued friends and colleagues. Michelle Lang joins the pantheon of journalists who will be remembered for their dedication and courage."

Matthew continued his eulogy for his dead colleague: "As my father, who served in Normandy and in many other battles in western Europe often told me, war is capricious," Matthew wrote. "How was it, he sometimes wondered, that he walked away from so many battles without a scratch while so many of his friends didn't? What I can tell you is that despite the risks, Michelle was clear that she wanted to be here. Her goal was uncomplicated. She wanted Canadians to better understand a conflict that has cost them so much in blood and treasure."

That's why the Sun-Star and McClatchy will continue to cover the wars America is waging. Because we all need to understand the stakes. And somebody -- somebody like Matthew or our former reporter Corinne Reilly -- has to be there to bear witness for us.

Be safe, Matthew. And Roy, Nancy, Tom and Chuck. Thanks for bringing the war home to us. And watch your 6.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or

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