Seven Questions with L.A.Times Photojournalist Luis Sinco

When I read recently the volatile Iraqi city of Falluja was back in control of various militant groups, I immediately thought of my friend Luis Sinco, who, as a L. A. Times photographer, covered the fierce "Second Battle" there in November, 2004 when the Marines took the city.

Lee, as Sinco is known to colleagues, took the iconic photo of the Iraq war,  a weary, cigarette-smoking Marine   resting for a moment after intense fighting on a rooftop. The photo, which became known as  "The Marlboro Man", catapulted Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller to fame and garnered Sinco much admiration. But, both men were damage by the war.  

I e-mailed with Lee about Falluja shortly after he shot the BCS college football final Monday at the Rose Bowl

1. Krikorian Writes   -When you first heard Falluja had been taken over by militant groups, what were your thoughts?

Luis Sinco - I thought that less than 10 years after I covered the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War, the Marine assault to regain control of of the city from insurgents in 2004, nothing had changed. The U.S. shed a lot of blood and expended a great deal of money to destroy that city in order to save the country from complete chaos. Thousands of insurgents were killed as well. The dead consisted mainly of young men on both sides. And it didn’t change anything, really. It allowed a constitutional referendum and subsequent political processes to elect the Iraqi leadership. However, Iraq has been in a constant state of instability since the invasion of 2003 and American occupation. Our effort to instill democracy there resulted in one man, one vote --- and Iraq was and is 65 percent Shia Muslim. Did we really expect the Sunnis, who had held power for three plus decades under Saddam Hussein, to roll over? No. there’s simply too much at stake. Too much oil in the ground.

2. KW -  Are your thoughts any different today than from when you first heard this news?

LS - I have come to the realization that t’was ever thus, for the reasons I have stated above. Saddam Hussein was not a nice guy, even when we counted him among our “allies.” And then we invaded Iraq for completely bogus reasons --- non-existent links to 9/11 and Al-Qeda, non-existent weapons of mass destruction, our belief that democracy would fit among a people whose religion and culture generally treat half the population (women) as second-class citizens with limited civil rights or, in some cases, no rights at all. P.J. O’Rourke was on “Real Time With Bill Maher” and said it best: “We should have paid for the oil instead of trying to steal it.” Let’s be blunt. This was a war for oil. And for some $10 billion in infrastructure and political investments, the Chinese now are exploiting that resource. The U.S. bill reached into the trillions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of American and Iraqi lives.


3. KW - Back on the rooftop with Miller,  i've read his account where he heard footsteps, turned around , rifle ready and then realized it was you . Can you take us through your point of view of that moment?

LS -  Everybody in that house was on edge. We had spent the entire night before pinned down behind a six-inch-high curb that ringed a traffic circle at the edge of town. In the morning, we came under heavy fire as we made our way through the streets of the city. It was estimated that some 2,500-3,000 insurgents had dug in and were waiting for the Marines. The company I was with got into an intense firefight right away, and we broke into a house to shelter from incoming small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. I had just transmitted some photos from the second floor and ran up to the rooftop to catch more of the action unfolding around us. In my haste, I did not identify myself as a “friendly” as I ran up the stairs. For all Blake and the other Marines knew, I could have been an insurgent running up to do them harm. It was that tense, chaotic and dangerous.


4. KW  - When was the last time you talked or communicated with Miller and how was he?

LS - I spoke with him by phone last last week and he is doing well. He has had intensive psychotherapy and is taking medication to help with his ongoing psychological trauma. He is worried that the Veterans Administration wants to cut off his disability benefits, and will do all he can to fight that. Despite having filed for divorce several years ago, he now is back together with his wife Jessica and they have a young son. They are also caring for a little girl that is his from another relationship. I cannot say much more than he is doing well. He is happy to no longer be in the public eye.

5. What affect did being in the Second  Battle of Falluja have on you?. I know that question could easily take a day to answer. 

LS - In short, I suffered psychological trauma as well, but was in deep denial about it for a long time. I am currently in intensive pyschotherapy. I came to the realization that I had a problem, when my wife of of 16 years and the mother of our three children, told me she had had enough and filed for a divorce. My journalistic career has been largely traumatic, whether through covering violent conflict, covering human poverty and misery, covering issues and people involved in crime, or covering environmental problems. Knowing the truth about the world as it is sometimes leaves you feeling despair and hopelessness. And that is trauma in itself.

6.  Any advice for a journalist going to the front?

LS - Do it if you feel the conflict is important enough for your readers to know about. But just realize most people don’t give a flying fuck.

7. . After being in Iraq with the Marines, can the BCS football game at the Rose Bowl be thrilling?

LS - I appreciate it for what it is — a game between two of the best teams in the country, with very fine athletes on both sides. Nothing more, nothing less. I do not consider it a stressful assignment or feel any undue pressure. After witnessing and documenting the state of so much of the world and its people, both within and without our borders, I can appreciate what real stress and meaning is.


Final Notes

Lee said  three photojournalists covering conflicts he really admires are Ed Ou, Javier Manzano and John Moore

After Lee answered my questions I was saddened to hear how tore inside he was and that covering the war had probably cost him his marriage. I emailed him. "I went to your wedding. wasn't it on the beach in san pedro? and the reception at some place down there.?  Clarence [Williams] and I got into a fight with some guys at another wedding. Your wedding was right on the sand, right?

He replied - You are right. It was beautiful