Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) saw the advent of a practice which revolutionized modern war reporting: the embedding of journalists with frontline combat units in war. This practice gave the media, the American public, and the world unprecedented access to the soldiers on the front lines, as well as to the war itself, through the filing of stories, photographs, and video from the battlefront in real time, by reporters who were right there with the soldiers doing the fighting. “We were offered an irresistible opportunity: free transportation to the front line of the war, dramatic pictures, dramatic sounds, great quotes,” said Tom Gjelten of National Public Radio. “Who can pass that up?”
While the military also benefited from having an eager outlet for its stories and successes, the biggest result of the embedding process was the shift it caused in the relationship between the military and the media, which laid the groundwork for a fundamental change in the dynamics of war reporting. As Major General Buford Blount of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division explained, “A level of trust developed between the soldier and the media that offered nearly unlimited access.”
Despite the obvious benefits of embedded reportage, though, the practice has met with its share of (expected) criticism from members of the Fourth Estate. Beginning even before OIF kicked off, media spokespersons and others — such as University of Texas professor Robert Jensen — expressed concern that “embedded reporters would inevitably become too sympathetic to the troops with whom they were traveling.” Theories were put forth that this was a “primary motivation on the part of military planners in designing the embedded system in the first place,” and that the U.S. government was simply taking the approach of “feed the media beast enough stories that cast U.S. troops in the best possible light and the job of managing the media message is all but taken care of.”
The latter is, of course, an absurdly simplistic notion. Rather than simply sitting back and receiving dispatches and releases carefully crafted to “cast U.S. troops in the best possible light,” embedded reporters, by the very nature of their task, see the troops with whom they are living, working, and experiencing danger at all times — the good, the bad, the heroic, the angry, the emotional, and the rest of the entire human spectrum. The former, though, does ring true to a degree; the debate on that count, then, is whether or not that is actually a bad thing.
While I was at the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) in Baghdad on my recent trip to Iraq, a pair of Spanish journalists — a newspaper reporter and a photojournalist — walked in, fresh from their embed with the 1-4 Cavalry of the 1st Infantry Division (the unit with which I embedded only days later). They had spent two weeks amongst the troops there, living and going on missions with them, including house-to-house searches and seizures, and their impressions of these soldiers were extremely clear.
“Absolutely amazing,” said David Beriain, the reporter (and the one who spoke English), said of the young Cavalry troops. “In Spain, it is embarrassing — our soldiers are ashamed to be in the army. These young men — and they seem so young! — are so proud of what they do, and do it so well, even though it is dangerous and they could very easily be killed.” Beriain explained that the company he had been embedded with had lost three men in the span of six days while he was there — one to a sniper and two to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), both of which had blown armored Humvees into the air and flipped them onto their roofs. Despite this, he said, and despite some of the things which they might have said in the heat of the moment after seeing another comrade die, the soldiers’ resolve and morale was unshaken in the long term, and they remained committed to carrying out their mission to the best of their ability for the duration of their tours in Iraq.
It was in the process of performing that mission, of coping with the loss of loved ones, and of just being themselves as American soldiers that these young men were able to win over the admiration and affection of more than one journalist who had arrived in their midst harboring a less-than-positive opinion of the Iraq war, and of those who were tasked with prosecuting it.
“I love those guys,” Beriain said, looking wistfully out the window of the media cloister in the Green Zone that is CPIC. “From the first time you go kick a door with them, they accept you — you’re one of them. I’ve even got a ‘family photo’ with them” to remember them by. “I really hated to leave.”
Such a radical transformation — and such a strong bond of affection — can rarely be forged in so little time outside of the constant, universal peril of a wartime environment. “It is those common experiences,” Beriain explained, “where you are all in danger, and you go through it together. It builds a relationship instantly.”
It doesn’t matter how skeptical of the war a journalist might be, according to an Army public affairs officer (PAO) who spoke with me about it on condition of anonymity. “So often, they come out of that experience and — even if their opinion of the war hasn’t changed — they’re completely won over by the troops.”
“I was one of those,” admitted Beriain, speaking broken English and blinking away tears. “No matter what you think of the war, or what has happened here, you cannot be around the soldiers and not be completely affected. They are amazing people, and they represent themselves and the Army better than anyone could ever imagine.” A retired Army officer concurred, telling me that “young troops are some of the best good will ambassadors we’ve ever produced. It would never occur to one to not tell you what he’s really thinking, and they are so earnest” that it is almost impossible not to be won over by them if given enough time.
The most spectacular recent case of a journalist with an anti-war mindset being completely overwhelmed into a change of heart by American soldiers, according to the PAO, was a Greek public television reporter who had been embedded with an infantry unit that became entrenched in a 45-minute firefight with insurgents. Yanked out of the line of fire by a soldier who put the journalist’s life above his own, he waited under cover and in fear of his life for the almost hour-long duration of the battle, with the best view possible of American soldiers in action against an armed and murderous enemy. He credits his having lived to tell the tale directly to those young troops.
“He had tears in his eyes as he talked about it,” said the PAO. “He just kept saying, ‘they saved my life, they saved my life…these are great men; they are heroes.’ Even after telling it several times, he couldn’t get through the story without choking up — and this was a man who had arrived here with all of the disdain for the Iraq mission and for the American soldiers who he [like seemingly most Europeans] had seen as the bad guys in this fight.”
While embedding may be decried by some for causing journalists, who claim the utopian titles of “objective” and “neutral” for their reportage, to lose their cold detachment and actually begin to see the soldiers they live alongside as humans, it is that very quality that makes the practice of embedding reporters with military units so beneficial to both parties. Rather than observing events from a safely detached distance — and thus being able to remove the human element from the equation — embedded reporters are forced to face up to the humanity of their subjects, and to share common experiences — often of the life-and-death variety — with those who they are covering.
Human nature being what it is, such close working conditions, and such common, life-threatening experiences, will have an effect on both parties involved — and it is a testament both to the soldiers themselves, and to the journalists who volunteer to live and work alongside them, that that effect has, in so many cases, been so positive.