It allowed us to do our jobs — bearing witness
Was there anything that we were ashamed of? A story we shouldn't have run? Are we sorry in retrospect, that we got involved with embedding in the first place? Or did we manage to provide readers with legitimate, compelling stories ...
By Andrew Ross
Was there anything that we were ashamed of? A story we shouldn't have run? Are we sorry in retrospect, that we got involved with embedding in the first place? Or did we manage to provide readers with legitimate, compelling stories we otherwise would not have obtained?
No, no, no and yes.
Which didn't make the embedding experience a totally unalloyed success. Having one reporter's laptop destroyed by a sandstorm before crossing the Iraqi border wasn't a good start. Cooped up for days in an armored vehicle as it thundered through the desert from Point A to Point B, or rattling around an empty VIP lounge at Saddam International Airport only confirmed that saw about war: Hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror – though, I hasten to add, little of the former was evident in our embedees' copy.
Carl Nolte, attached to Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the Army's 3d Infantry Division, drew sharp, unsentimental portraits of the “Boys in the Bradley” reflecting on “doing their job'' -- killing the enemy at places like Najaf, Karbala and the Baghdad Airport -- and then wanting to go home, to “drink beer and watch women.'' Nolte, an Army veteran who covered the far more censored 1991 Gulf War, found himself “pleased and amazed” at the access allowed this time. “In no way did I get a look at the big picture,” says Nolte. “But I did have an unparalleled opportunity to live with and report on U.S. troops.”
It was a judgment echoed by the Chronicle's other two embeds.
Chronicle photographer Michael Macor was assigned to a Marine Combat Service and Support unit. Not promising. Yet he managed to get pictures that were featured all over the world, including a double-truck in Time magazine.
John Koopman, a former Marine, accompanied the 3d Battalion 4th Marines as they fought bloody battles at Kut, for the Diyala bridge into Baghdad -- in which two Marines were killed -- and roared into the center of the capital, where they helped pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein heralding the effective end of the war.
To be perfectly honest, I didn't spend a great deal of time agonizing over some of the chin-wagging issues -- whether we were pawns of the Pentagon, and so forth. Of much greater concern, both before and during the war, were the potential dangers confronting all our reporters in the field, including the “unilaterals” -- Anna Badkhen in the north, and Robert Collier in Baghdad. Have them stay or pulling them out was the subject of many hours of discussion. That is, until there was no turning back and all that remained was a permanent puddle of worry.
Not that editors here were unaware of the journalistic pitfalls. There was, as we knew there would be, the occasional “blackout” period, frustrating the insatiable appetite for copy. The potential for “identifying” with the troops was talked through and understood; the “we” word was forbidden. Loaning satphones to soldiers and Marines so they could call home was not.
Outweighing the pitfall was the opportunity -- the obligation, actually -- to be eyewitnesses on the front lines of an American war. Whether the resulting snapshots were glorious or despicable was for the reader to judge. Much of what our embedded reporters saw and unblinkingly reported on -- human beings reduced to ashes and cinder, battles more accurately described as slaughters rather than fights, a Marine dying in front of his comrade's eyes -- was hardly the stuff of propaganda films or campaign videos.
A final few words for critics comfortably ensconced on sabbaticals and fellowships and in J-schools, and so forth: Embedded or unembedded, most of the journalists covering the war didn't have a whole lot of fun. Several died, including two who were embedded. It was dirty and dangerous. Bullets flew, missiles exploded, sand got into every available pore, and half of the time, reporters didn't know where the hell they were. Neither did their families. Still, they filed. To the best of their ability, they bore witness.
Ross, executive foreign-national editor, was the supervising editor of the San Francisco Chronicle's war coverage.