Hundreds of newspaper, TV and radio reporters heaved on flak jackets and strapped on gas masks last week and joined U.S. forces preparing for war in a massive experiment that could reshape the way the American military allows itself to be covered by the media.
Participating in what the Pentagon has dubbed “embedding,” journalists joined Army, Marine Corps and Navy units in the hope that, if battle comes, they can report on it from an up-close perspective. The Pentagon is seeking to cast the most positive light on the way it would wage a war that is highly unpopular throughout most of the world.
A few days into this process, the two groups are dealing with their own clash of cultures as media meet military in the field. It is a mixed bag. These are reports from embedded Los Angeles Times writers.
‘You Volunteered for This?’
The beginning was inauspicious.
Drops of blood the size of quarters marked the path from a building of the Hilton Kuwait resort to the tennis court. They marked the first casualties of the Pentagon’s plan to embed reporters.
Out on the court, reporters and photographers struggled with trash bags laden with their newly issued nuclear, biological and chemical equipment -- NBC gear, in the Army’s Babylonia of acronyms.
“Be careful opening the canister for your air filter,” warned a sergeant. “We’ve already had some people need stitches.”
Indeed, a peel-open system, like sardine cans of old, left razor-sharp edges to the containers, which were slightly larger than a can of cocktail peanuts. Within minutes, one reporter had bandages on three fingers, having confirmed the sergeant’s warning.
The NBC training included donning a gas mask in nine seconds, with eyes closed and breath held. That was followed by a demonstration on donning the oversized jackets, suspender pants and loose rubber galoshes that complete the outfit.
Then came an explanation of how to expel bodily waste while suited up for weapons of mass destruction -- a process that involves much swabbing with charcoal wipes, rolling of clothing, more swabbing and gingerly unfastening.
“A lot of soldiers just go in their suits and do laundry later,” the sergeant explained.
Never take off your mask, she added, until someone yells “all clear.”
“OK, take off your masks,” she said. Thirteen reporters complied. All of them, the sergeant explained, were now dead.
“You forgot to wait for ‘all clear,’ ” she said.
In exchange for their positions within battlefield units, reporters and photographers have agreed to not report positions, troop strength, future plans and operations with any precision, or to wait until actions are over to divulge details.
Lt. Col. Eric Wesley of the Army 3rd Infantry’s 2nd, or “Spartan,” Brigade, offered advice to reporters: Don’t step in front of a tank. Give wide berth to gun turrets. Do as you’re told. This is the only brigade that has already killed a reporter -- a French photographer who, pursuing a better angle, stepped in front of a tank in Afghanistan.
At the 4th Battalion’s C Company (“Cyclones”), in a staked-out patch of thick sand populated by 20 or so tents, reaction among troops who squeezed another cot into a tent to accommodate a reporter ranged from enthusiasm to a weary GI shrug.
They begged for news beyond sporadic shortwave-radio dispatches that have been their lifeline to home for months. Their usual next question, repeated often: “You volunteered for this?”
*ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN
‘It’s the Admiral’s Ship, and He Can Do What He Wants’
Engagement of Iraq may still be days away, but the war between the media and the military is already flaring.
Despite assurances from Pentagon public affairs officers that embedded journalists would be accorded “unprecedented access” to sailors’ and aviators’ sacrifice, pain and glory, the 30 media representatives on board this aircraft carrier have been received with all the warmth due invading enemy forces.
Escorts assigned to each journalist shadow every move and contact. Said to be for the media’s safety and to ensure that classified information isn’t inadvertently imparted, the minders are required to report in writing to their superiors the name, rank, department and comments of every crew member with whom each media representative comes in contact.
Big Sailor is always watching.
Numerous interviews among the 5,500-member crew have been denied or discouraged because the carrier group’s commander, Rear Adm. John M. Kelly, has objected or because public affairs officers anticipate such displeasure.
“It’s the admiral’s ship, and he can do what he wants,” Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Bender has told several of the reporters who have voiced displeasure. (Kelly met with reporters Friday to hear their complaints.)
Despite the tension, some naval personnel have at least taken pains to physically accommodate the alien invasion. In centuries-old Navy tradition, civilian visitors are accorded the privileges of senior officers. They sleep in carpeted staterooms for “distinguished visitors” meant for two or four people but retrofitted with cots to accommodate six.
Daily COD flights -- carrier on-board delivery aircraft -- ferry news tapes to shore at least once a day. Three personal computers in the cramped TV studio, the makeshift work space for photographers and reporters, give journalists access to shipboard e-mail accounts for filing stories and keeping in touch with those at home.
Embedded journalists are allowed to cut in line at the ship’s always-thronged store, and meals are offered in the wardrooms reserved for officers or at the chief petty officer’s mess.
But the VIP treatment is also a means of keeping reporters away from the rank and file. Enlisted personnel have time to relax and share their thoughts only at meals and in their berthing -- venues off-limits to the media.
This newspaper’s escort, Journalist 2nd Class Barb Silkwood, said that the prohibitions allow crew members to protect what little privacy they have in crowded quarters.
“Some people feel kind of invaded,” she said of the journalists’ presence.
-- Carol J. Williams
CAMP MATILDA, NORTHERN KUWAIT
‘Unsung, the Noblest Deed Will Die’
Here with the 1st Marine Division just a few dozen miles from the Iraqi border, waiting for the order to “cross the line of departure,” the word has been passed from the brass to the rank and file. Cooperate. Talk freely, but don’t give away secrets. Treat reporters as members of the unit: Help them, but don’t coddle them.
Maj. Gen. James Mattis, commanding officer of the division, is known to be media-friendly. He allowed reporters to embed when he commanded Marines in Afghanistan at Camp Rhino and then at the bombed-out Kandahar airport.
He welcomed reporters to the camp with a quotation he attributed to the Greek poet Pindar: “Unsung, the noblest deed will die.”
“We’re going to do a noble deed here,” Mattis said.
Matilda is in a onetime Iraqi minefield left from the 1990-91 occupation of Kuwait -- an hour and a world away from Kuwait City.
To the mostly young Marines, the reporters are exotics. They want to know why the reporters have left the comforts of home for the dust and wind of the Kuwaiti desert. They want to know whether the reporters get paid extra for war-zone duty.
When one reporter was having some difficulty getting into the back seat of a Humvee while wearing a full suit of body armor -- required for Humvee rides -- the Marines watched in curiosity.
A sergeant who spotted a reporter wasting water in the shower tent provided a sharp but memorable order to “knock it off.” Marines who see a reporter not carrying a gas mask provide an on-the-spot refresher course on the gas-mask requirement.
The young Marines call male reporters “sir” and inquire whether they can be of use; they grouse a bit, rue the things they’re missing (movies, music, women), and express frustration about waiting in the desert while politicians from various nations decide their fate.
-- Tony Perry