May 14, 2007
Embedded Journalists Won Over by SoldiersBy Jeff Emanuel
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 in real time of stories, photographs and video from the battlefront, by reporters who were right there with the soldiers doing the fighting.
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,
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
Theories were put forth that this was a
and that the US government was simply taking the approach 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.
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.
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 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.
A retired Army officer concurred, telling me that
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.
While it may be decried by some for causing journalists, who claim to be "objective" and "neutral" in their reporting, to lose their cold detachment and actually begin to see the soldiers they live alongside as humans, it is that very fact 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.
Jeff Emanuel is a Leadership Fellow with the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade and Security.