War Stories

On the fifth day of the war, a convoy carrying the headquarters battalion of the First Marine Division moved deeper into Iraq. Five reporters riding in the back of a seven-ton cargo truck were told to lie flat and wear body armor and Kevlar helmets because of snipers. Twenty-six hours later, the convoy was still moving. To make matters worse, a fearsome sandstorm had kicked up, turning the atmosphere an apocalyptic orange. By the time the trucks wheezed to a halt at the next camp, the blowing dirt had blotted out the sun entirely. We climbed out of the truck and staggered through the gloaming into our tent just in time for the sandstorm to become a freak rainstorm, which turned the desert into the consistency of peanut butter.

That was only the beginning of my month-long embed with the Marines. When we opened our laptops and tried to write stories at night, the gunnery sergeant would bellow, “Turn that fucking light out before you get your grape shot!” In Marine-speak, a grape is a head, and there was constant concern that snipers would shoot at any light source in camp.

We overcame. The colonel finally let us use the chaplain’s tent as a filing center at night. When the tent wasn’t available, I learned to unpack and set up a Nera satellite phone and file an entire piece to All Things Considered in the dark.

In the end, though, the inconveniences of covering a major theater war proved less frustrating than the embed process itself. Many reporters have praised the embed system for giving them full-time, unfiltered access to front-line fighting units. But for me, embedding was a flawed experiment that served the purposes of the military more than it served the cause of balanced journalism.

During my travels with the Marines, I couldn’t shake the sense that we were cheerleaders on the team bus. Major General Jim Mattis said as much in his opening comments to the 95 reporters who would be covering the First Marine Division. Quoting the Greek poet, Pindar, he told us, “Unsung, the noblest deed will die, and we’re going to do a noble deed here.” He also pointed out there would be no Iwo Jima monument were it not for a combat photographer.

Mattis is understandably proud of his troops, as all Marine commanders are, and he wanted journalists to convey these qualities of valor and perseverance to the American public. But I had the feeling he and the Marine brass saw us, not as neutral journalists who had a job to do, but as instruments to reflect the accomplishments and glory of the USMC. And day after day, the media delivered. One afternoon in Camp Matilda, in northern Kuwait, before the war began, a press officer leaned back in the chow hall and scanned a color spread in Time magazine on the Marines preparing for battle.

“Money can’t buy this kind of recruitment campaign,” he said appreciatively.

The Marines lived up to their pledge not to tamper with our coverage. I never heard of an incident of censorship. We were prohibited from revealing a military unit’s precise location or future battle plans, but those are reasonable requests in any war. Furthermore, I never had a single person—from grunt to colonel—tell me “no comment.” But reporting mishaps could come at a price.

On March 24, Joe Eddins, chief photographer for The Washington Times, happened onto the aftermath of an accident in which two Marines drowned after reportedly being ordered to swim the Saddam Canal in full battle gear. Two days later, the newspaper ran a story in which the reporter quoted Eddins as saying the Marines had, in fact, attempted to cross the canal without a safety line. After the story ran, Eddins said, “I was effectively blackballed.” He said the commanders of the group to which he was assigned froze him out, and he eventually moved on to a different unit.

The single most common criticism I heard from my embedded colleagues during the war was the lack of mobility. Veteran defense correspondent George Wilson, who covered the Vietnam War for The Washington Post and now writes for the National Journal, spent a week chronicling a Marine artillery gun crew. It was a rich story, he said, but ultimately frustrating.

“We would see a shell go downrange, but we had no way to find out what it hit or who was killed,” he said. “In Vietnam, you could really find out what we’d done and not done. Here, I felt like the second dog in a dogsled. All you saw was the dog in front of you and if you broke out of the traces you lost your place.”

Without our own transportation or translators, embedded reporters lived exclusively within the reality of the U.S. military. In briefings, we were told about targets destroyed, territory claimed, and enemy soldiers captured. Despite the peculiarities of working in a combat zone, my reaction was the same as it is on any other story: if your mother says she loves you, check it out. The inability of embedded journalists to verify the military’s version of the war in Iraq made for one-sided reporting.

My editor has since tried to reassure me that our coverage sounded more balanced than I was aware of. For instance, after a general announced to the press corps in Doha, Qatar, that there were no delays in the supply train to the troops, I was able to say on the air that everyone in our battalion was down to one meal a day.

A few days after Baghdad fell, I said goodbye to the Marines who had befriended me, promised to keep in touch, and officially “out-bedded.” It was then that I began to learn about the war that had been inaccessible to embedded reporters. Traveling south on Route 7 out of Baghdad with a driver and translator, I stumbled onto the tragic story of Al-Taniya village.

Early the morning of April 2, U.S. bombs were mistakenly dropped on Al-Taniya, killing 31 Iraqi civilians as they slept. When I approached the mud-walled town, about 25 miles southeast of the capital, an old man named Rashid, wearing a blue tunic and a black and white kafiya, asked me to follow him. We stopped at a bomb crater about 30 feet across that had carved out a clearing in the middle of a cluster of mud and straw houses. He said nine members of his family died there.

“The airplanes came early in the morning,” he began. “I was asleep when the kitchen exploded. My house has four rooms, and in every room, there were two or three of my relatives asleep.”

A distraught local man named Salem Abda said, “We ask Bush, why did he bomb us? Are there weapons, tanks, soldiers, fedayeen? No. There is nothing here, not even food.”

After researching the incident, Lt. Col. Ed Worley, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, confirmed to me that F-15 Strike Eagles had dropped 500-pound, precision-guided bombs that same morning “on tanks and tracked vehicles in the area.” He said that, on my request, the Air Force researched its after-mission reports and found no mention of missed targets.

“When a bomb hits close to a neighborhood, it may knock a house over,” Worley suggested. For the U.S. military, the accidental bombardment of Al-Taniya village had simply not occurred.

I’m not suggesting we should have embedded American journalists with the fedayeen paramilitaries. But why not allow some reporters to have their own vehicles on the battlefield? In fact, the Marines had been ready to let some reporters have their own rides. Centcom vetoed the idea at the last minute over concerns the vehicles would break down or be vulnerable to friendly fire.

Acknowledging the unnatural restrictions on journalists’ movements, Public Affairs Officer Capt. Joe Plenzler concluded, “In the future, I’d recommend the media bring their own four-wheel drives, their own diesel, and travel like lampreys under a shark, under the protection of the Marines.”

Some “unilaterals” did travel in their own vehicles with the troops, but the ones I met were constantly afraid of losing their place or of the military denying them food and fuel.

On the positive side, embedding with the troops allowed us to tell remarkable stories from the trenches. There were the musicians of the First Marine Division Band, who traded their trumpets and tubas for heavy machine guns and stood watch day and night, in sandstorms and searing sun.

There was Sgt. Lee Bronco, chief of gun crew three, Romeo Battery, Fifth Battalion, 10th Marine Artillery Regiment, who named their howitzer “Sacrifice” because of all the births, honeymoons and family illnesses his men were missing at home. And there was Lt. Oscar Rodriguez Jr., who, the day our humvee was ambushed, leaped out of his seat with only his 9mm pistol and charged at the building in which the snipers were concealed, leading to their capture.

“I’m concerned about one-sidedness,” said Byron Harris, a reporter with WFAA-TV in Dallas, who had been embedded with a combat service support unit, “but I don’t think Americans understand how hard Marines’ lives are. We were able to tell that story. Maybe once they do, Americans won’t be so frivolous about getting us involved in foreign wars.”

Plenzler, who oversaw the reporters in the First Marine Division, said he considered the experiment a success.

“We didn’t know what to expect. Some Marine oldtimers were against it. My goal was to get a close-knit relationship, and I think we did that,” he said, leaning on the hood of a humvee after the war was over.

A major with the First Marine Infantry Regiment, who became my friend for life when I smuggled him a warm beer from a Baghdad hotel, pulled me aside on my last day. He said he hoped many of the young embedded reporters continue to cover the armed forces, because now they understand the military.

“When these reporters go to a Pentagon press conference and a general stands up and gives them a bullshit answer,” he said, “maybe now they’ll know to say, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’”

A shorter version of this article appeared in the June issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. John Burnett is Southwest Correspondent for NPR, based in Austin.

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Published at 12:00 am CST