This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. For many of the journalists who have covered it, it has been the story of their lifetime, but we’ve nevertheless seen coverage of the war slip off the front pages over the last few months. While there are still plenty of reporters risking their lives doing great work in Iraq, much of the political, social, and economic complexity of today’s war seems to be getting lost in the election-year crush, even as the war continues to be a major issue in the campaign. This series is CJR’s attempt to add a little bit of context to the whole, while digging into stories that don’t always make it into our morning newspapers. This is the final piece in the series.
A handful of soldiers stood around a bonfire at Joint Security Station Tarmiya, feeding the flames by tossing empty cardboard boxes from that day’s mail delivery into the pit. The former youth sports complex that serves as the home base for the 180 men of C company has an open courtyard in the middle where a fire pit has been set up, and it has become the place where soldiers gather in the evenings to get out of the confining space of the building to smoke, listen to music, and more often than not, stare into the flames in silence.
In the middle of this daily routine one night this past February, the familiar crack of automatic gunfire broke the relative stillness just outside the walls of the base, causing a few soldiers to turn down the country music they had been listening to. Another pop went off, then nothing more. The silhouettes of the guards up on the roof could be seen darting back and forth looking for the source of the gunfire, but as so often happens, the shooter had melted away into the night.
At the time, I had been in the middle of a conversation with a soldier who, when I told him I was a reporter, said, “Man, you must be making a lot of money to be here.”
If a soldier had only said this to me once, I probably would have forgotten it; twice, a coincidence. But at least a half dozen times over the four weeks I spent with infantry units in Iraq, soldiers suggested I must be getting paid extra to be there. In a way, this disconnect between perception and reality is funny, because journalists often joke about how little money we make. When I would tell the soldiers that I was making just as much by coming to Iraq as I would sitting in my office in New York, they invariably asked why I had come. The grunts didn’t seem as worked up about the lack of coverage back home of the war, which in a way makes sense: they’re living it. But in writing this series, I’ve received enough e-mails from mothers, fathers, and wives of soldiers deployed in Iraq who told me how hard it is to get any news out of Iraq these days.
Five years into the war, news organizations have understandably cut back a bit, given the immense cost of maintaining a Baghdad bureau. From life insurance for reporters to guards, armored cars (which not all bureaus have), and fortified houses outside of the Green Zone, reporting from Iraq is an incredibly expensive proposition.
But embedding with infantry units is free. Flights to Kuwait, where the Army public affairs team picks you up and puts you on a military aircraft to Iraq, and insurance still cost, but once you’re embedded, your expenses end. And that’s why I can’t understand why every major news organization doesn’t have one reporter embedded with a combat unit at all times. They won’t always be able to file stories, but they can contribute a steady stream of material about the fight—and the ground-level diplomacy—being waged by young American captains, lieutenants, and sergeants. The fact that I spent four weeks in Iraq and only ran into one stringer working for an American newspaper is testament to how few reporters are out in the field. Of course, there are reporters in Iraq, and my time bouncing between combat outposts constitutes an official census; but it is significant that in every unit I was with, I was the first reporter they had seen. It was the same story back in 2006, with I embedded with the 2nd Marine Division in Fallujah.